Meet the Millennials Reshaping New Jersey

Despite statistics that suggest otherwise, many millennials have opted for the Garden State. Here’s why—and how they're affecting the way all of us live.

From left: Millennials George Vallone and Chanel Flores; Kristina and Jaraun Wright; Mare Dowson and Alex Fagundez. Photos by Christopher Lane

It’s not hard to find evidence that millennials are reshaping New Jersey. Just take a stroll down South Street in historic Morristown on any Friday night. Vibrant crowds gather outside Revolution, one of the downtown’s growing collection of craft beer bars. Across the street, an arcade filled with classic video games and pinball machines has supplanted the PNC Bank branch.

Illustration by Alexander Mostov

A few doors down, neatly bearded, preening, customers fill the chairs at the aptly named High End Barbershop. Nearby, customers browse the artfully displayed bottles at Amanti Vino, a wine shop that delivers. It replaced an old-fashioned pharmacy in 2018.

The Subway sandwich shop is also gone. The new lunchspot on the block is the trendy Tacoria. Swain’s Art Store, recently closed, will soon evolve into an organic juice bar. And then there are the many yoga, barre and cycling studios that have popped up along Morristown’s major corridor.

The town barely resembles the one I remember from 2009, when I set off for college. Like many Jersey kids, I couldn’t wait to go out of state. After spending most of my life in the suburbs, I was eager for a change in scenery, and gladly left behind my family’s old subdivision in Bridgewater for a dorm room in Philadelphia. My vision for the future did not include New Jersey.

[RELATED: Inside the Dating Lives of Jersey’s Single Millennials]

By the time college graduation rolled around, the economy had yet to fully recover from the Great Recession. Like many other millennials, I struggled to find a job. As my prospects dimmed, I sought refuge in graduate school.

In 2016, armed with a master’s degree and an insurmountable pile of student loan debt, I again entered the job market. I was approaching 26 and about to be kicked off my parents’ health care plan. After applying for more than 100 jobs in the Philadelphia area, a place I had no desire to abandon, I realized I had to look elsewhere. That’s how, in early 2017, I landed back in the New Jersey suburbs.

Statistics suggest that millennials tend to leave New Jersey. Still, there are many, like me, who opt for the Garden State. Our presence is increasingly felt in the workplace, in transformed downtowns like Morristown’s and even in local and state government.

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The Pew Research Center defines millennials as the cohort born between 1981 and 1996. That means the oldest millennials will turn 39 this year; the youngest, 24. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017, New Jersey is home to approximately 1.87 million millennials, or 20.8 percent of the total state population. 

Illustration by Alexander Mostov

But the same census data attests to Jersey’s net outflow of millennials. A total of 1,050,097 millennials moved out of the state between 2007 and 2016, mostly opting for Manhattan, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Queens (in that order). For the same period, 866,506 millennials moved into Jersey—including some of the generation’s wealthiest individuals, according to financial advisory firm SmartAsset, which ranks New Jersey among the top 10 states where rich millennials are moving.

So while it’s true New Jersey has a millennial-retention problem, my generation hasn’t entirely abandoned the state.

Nationwide, millennials have surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation, comprising half of the American workforce. It’s obvious millennials are vital to New Jersey’s future.

What’s driving millennials away? Among other factors, our state’s high cost of living, pricey rental market and lack of walkable communities make it seem less desirable than other states. 

“We lack millennial cool in many, many places,” declares demographics expert James W. Hughes, professor and Dean Emeritus of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, who co-authored a report about generational differences in Jersey last July with colleague Joseph J. Seneca. “We’re the capital of tract-house suburbia in the United States,” adds Hughes. “When you have Philadelphia and New York outside your borders, you’re going to lose people to those places.”

But Jersey towns are doing their best to keep up. In contrast to the sprawling, car-centric suburbs many grew up in, millennials prefer 24/7 live-work-play environments, a marketing phrase for areas with high residential density, walkability, easy access to public transportation, and convenient downtown shopping, restaurants and entertainment. 

“The millennial generation started the trend for mixed-use, downtown development,” says Brian Stolar, president and CEO of the Pinnacle Companies, an urban redeveloper with past projects in Montclair, Hoboken and Jersey City. “Now developers are perfecting and fine-tuning it for Gen Z.”

For urban projects, Stolar is mindful of preferences for share cars, bike access, co-working spaces, high-speed encrypted Wi-Fi and locker storage for deliveries.

In an effort to make municipalities more vibrant and pedestrian friendly, the state has offered grants to commuter hubs through the Transit Village Initiative since 1999. That’s how places like Morristown, New Brunswick, Long Branch and Collingswood—all with Transit Village designation—have become millennial magnets.

“Twenty-five years ago, when people asked you where you lived, you’d say, ‘Oh, I live near Menlo Park Mall or Woodbridge Mall,’” says Hughes. “That’s sort of a historical memory today. Somerville is now the hot spot, not Bridgewater Commons.”

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After falling for a brownstone apartment in the Hamilton Park neighborhood of Jersey City, Vallone and Flores decided to move in together. Photo by Christopher Lane

Even revitalized suburban downtowns have a hard time matching the millennial appeal of cities like Jersey City and Hoboken. Both are booming with development and attracting an influx of millennials.

When Chanel Flores, 28, was searching for an apartment after finding a job as an architectural designer in Manhattan, she had her eyes set on New York. Having grown up in Montclair, she was ready to join most of her friends in the city, where they’d moved after college. Although Montclair has much to offer, it isn’t ideal, says Flores, “because you still have to be a slave to the train schedule.”

At the same time, her boyfriend, George Vallone, 30—who grew up in Hunterdon County and works in software sales—was looking at apartments in Jersey City. They weren’t thinking about moving in together, but after falling for a brownstone apartment in Hamilton Park, decided to go for it.

Flores and Vallone, who met on the dating app Bumble, love what their neighborhood offers: charm, affordability, diversity and easy access to both New York City and their families in the suburbs. “I love being able to take my car to go visit my family for Sunday dinner and still be able to wake up on Monday and not have to stress about catching a train at five o’clock in the morning to make it to work on time,” says Flores. “That perfect balance, for me, is really critical.” 

Adds Vallone, “I like that I’m close to my parents and able to access them in person rather than just over the phone. And also, the free babysitting eventually will be great.”

Not all millennials in New Jersey are lucky enough to have found that balance in an apartment of their own or with roommates. Many still live at home. 

In fact, more millennials live with their parents in New Jersey than anywhere else in the country. According to a 2018 New Jersey Policy Perspective report on millennials, 47 percent of individuals aged 18-38 resided with their parents in 2014.

There’s a trope that millennials are a lazy, entitled, avocado-toast-eating, latte-sipping generation that has moved back in with their parents to avoid paying rent. But the reality is that millennials’ finances are squeezed more than any other post-war generation.

“The downside for [millennials] compared to previous generations is they really began entering the workforce during the worst economic setback since the Great Depression,” says Hughes. “That singular societal event has impacted the generation, coupled with a time when college costs were soaring.”

Experian, the consumer credit reporting company, recently revealed that New Jersey residents owe an average of $37,370 in student loans, for a cumulative $43 billion of student loan debt. Millennials carry much of that on their shoulders. That often means delaying major milestones such as marriage, parenthood and home ownership.

After paying off student loans, Dowson and Fagundez can look ahead to saving for their future home. Photo by Christopher Lane

Student loan debt is what drove Mare Dowson, 33, to move back in with her parents after graduating from the College of New Jersey at the height of the recession in 2008. Her partner, Alex Fagundez, 28, did the same to pay off the loans she took out for her Rutgers degree. Living at home is “one of the reasons I’ll eventually be able to buy a house,” she says.

The couple, who met on Tinder, another popular dating app, now live together in an apartment in Lodi and are looking to the future with pragmatic eyes. “We’re choosing to save for a house instead of a wedding,” says Dowson.

In 2015, after living in a four-bedroom condo in Hoboken with roommates for several years, Chris Jarahian, now 33, moved back in with his parents in Spring Lake Heights. His biggest goal was to save money and pay off debt. He’s working two jobs, but his social life has taken a hit.

“Moving home definitely was not a confidence booster,” says Jarahian. “I had so many friends still living in Hoboken either getting married, having kids, or moving on with their careers, and I was still struggling to figure out what I wanted to do.”

Since moving back home, Jarahian has gotten his MBA and launched a new career in real estate. He plans to buy his first home somewhere in Monmouth County next year. “None of this would be possible without me living at home,” he says. “I would be in debt for I don’t know how long.”

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When she was eight months pregnant, Monica and husband Andrew bought a home in Cranford, where 18-month-old Emily now plays. Photo by Christopher Lane

Of course, there’s diversity among millennials, especially at the older end of the cohort. And while many have delayed parenthood and home-ownership, these life events haven’t entirely fallen by the wayside. For those who embark on the next phase, finding a  balance of amenities is essential. Suburban communities with a vibrant downtown and train station are especially appealing.

When starting a family, Monica, 32, knew that she wanted to be close to Cranford, where she grew up and where her parents still live. “I’m a homebody,” the Kenilworth elementary teacher admits.

Monica and her husband Andrew, 31, house-hunted in towns like Scotch Plains, Plainfield, and Kenilworth for over a year. (The couple asked to use first names only.) Then, when Monica was eight months pregnant, they found their dream home, which just so happened to be in her hometown. In the offer letter, Monica wrote about how she learned to ride her bike in a nearby park, and how she could envision herself raising her family there. The couple got the house, and moved in when their daughter Emily, now 18 months old, was a newborn.

There’s only one thing Monica would do differently. “I would love to be a stay-at-home mom, but I can’t. We were able to buy a house, but only because we both work,” she says. “If this were our parents’ generation, I would be home. Someone’s dad being an accountant used to be enough.”

Taekwondo was the first hobby Kristina and Jaraun Wright, who wed in December, picked up together. The couple takes classes at a school in Morristown. Photo by Christopher Lane

Other millennial couples feel the financial pressure when looking ahead at starting families here. Morristown residents Kristina and Jaraun Wright, 32 and 33 respectively, love where they live. “Morristown is the perfect amalgamation of what America is,” says Jaraun, a Drew University student and member of the Morris Township Environmental Commission. “You have a little bit of suburbs, and a little bit of a country. You can go fishing [in nearby parks] and then take the train right to the city in the same day.”

Still, they don’t want to raise their future family here, in part because it’s expensive, but also because Kristina’s parents and other family members moved to North Carolina after she and her siblings left home. “With your first kid, you want your mom around,” says Kristina, a William Paterson graduate and owner of Jersey Girls Marketing. “I want to see my family more often.”

* * *

As I was writing this story, I began to think deeply about my own place in New Jersey. I still have student loan debt and no idea if or when I’ll be able to afford to buy a home. But I am sure the suburbs are no longer for me.

While the state has grown more appealing in the three years since I moved back, I’m once again ready to trade cul-de-sacs for city blocks. As this issue goes to press, I’m quitting my garden-style apartment in Parsippany for an updated pre-war building in Jersey City, joining the crowd of millennials there doing our best to make ends meet. 

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