Escape from VancouverA few weeks back, I wrote about an article that appeared in The Tyee, arguing that artsy, creative young people are abandoning Vancouver in droves. As evidence, the author mentioned data showing a decline in the number of young people in Metro Vancouver since 1996.

The idea that Vancouver was pushing out young people struck me as sketchy. So I looked at the numbers a bit, and decided that the article had things exactly backward:  Vancouver has actually been a magnet for BC’s young people

And in response, the author cited this report (pdf link), based on Canadian Census figures showing that the population of 25-34 year olds in Metro Vancouver dropped by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006.

Let me be clear about two things.  First, the Canadian Census really does show a decline in Vancouver’s 25-34 year old population from 1996 to 2006.  And second, that decline is absolutely irrelevant: the apparent decline is entirely due to the continent-wide “baby bust” of the early 1970s, which followed close on the heels of the “baby boom” of the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, if you take the time to parse the numbers more closely, you can see a very clear trend:  young people really do prefer metro Vancouver.

Let’s look at those numbers, shall we?

  • BC total fertility rateThe chart to the right illustrates birth rates in BC from 1921 through 2007.  That big bump in the middle was the baby boom—a time when there were simply tremendous numbers of kids in British Columbia. 

    But what went up also came down:  by the early 1970s, fertility fell to what was, at the time, an all-time low.  Provincial birthrates have remained at roughly those levels ever since.

    Fast forward to 1996:  because of the baby boom that peaked about 30 years earlier, there were simply tons of 25-34 year olds in British Columbia.  But 15-24 year olds, born during the baby bust, were in relatively short supply. 

    Fast forward again to 2006.  By then, 35-44 year olds were booming, while 25-34 year olds were in short supply. So comparing 1996 (30 years after the boom) with 2006 (30 years after the bust) we see a decline in the number of 30 year olds. 

    It’s really pretty simple:  the overarching demographic trends prevalent throughout North America—boom in the 1960s, bust in the 1970s—accounts for essentially all of the so-called “exodus” of young people from metro Vancouver between 1996 and 2006.

    And, in fact, by 2008 the loss of young adults had largely reversed itself:  figures from BC Stats show that the “losses” in the 25-34 demographic were cut by 75 percent in just 2 years.  And more to the point, the province’s figures showed that the population of 20-30 year olds grew by 13 percent between 1996 and 2008.  But once again, the growth in the hipster demographic was due to birthrates and immigration patterns in previous years, not to a sudden surge in Vancouver’s appeal to young adults.

    BC-Vancouver Hipster RatioSo that’s the story of the “decline” in “young people” in Vancouver: it’s all demographics, and actually applies only to 30-34 year olds. 

    But analyzing population trends by age, both inside and outside of Metro Vancouver, offers a fairly straightforward way of testing whether young adults in BC were actually rejecting the city. They weren’t.  The graph to the right shows that in 1986, BC’s young adults were roughly evenly split between metro Vancouver and the rest of the province.  But over time more and more 25-34 year olds chose metro Vancouver as their home.

    The evidence here isn’t even mixed:  Vancouver young adult population has grown substantially faster over the last few decades than it has in the province overall.  True, the once-phenomenal growth of Vancouver’s hipster-attractiveness-factor seems to have slackened since about 2001.  But I simply can’t find evidence that Vancouver’s hipsters are so fed up with the city that they’re leaving it, en masse, for mellower pastures. 

    Of course, none of this number crunching gets to the real point of the article—that Vancouver is bland, no fun, and a turnoff for young creative types.  I suppose that’s possible.  But to me, complaints about the decline of Vancouver’s appeal to young people strikes me a bit like the old Yogi Berra-ism:  “Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.”

    I hope I don’t come across as touchy on the this issue.  But I do care, deeply, about getting the facts right about Vancouver.  For all its flaws, Vancouver is the Pacific Northwest’s exemplar of a sustainable city.  Vancouver’s record at controlling sprawl, preserving farmland, and reducing car dependence are simply unsurpassed among Northwest urban areas —and set an example to which Seattle and Portland should aspire.  So maybe I get a little defensive about the idea that our bioregion’s sustainable mecca is synonymous with boredom. 

    So sure, if you’ve really got the numbers on your side, by all means fire away.  But if you haven’t done your math…next time I hope you’ll pull your punches.

    Photo courtesy of Flickr user Magalie L’Abbé under a Creative Commons license.