The Jersey suburbs used to be what the American Dream was all about. But these days, many suburban communities are seeing their populations decline.

Millennials continue settling in 24/7 live-work-play environments, and younger families that do pick the suburbs are living in areas with walkable downtown centers.

It’s a trend that many towns should pay attention to, according to Rutgers University economics professor James Hughes.

“Young people find the suburbs very, very boring. They have suburban fatigue. But there’s another issue as well,” he said.

“The traditional suburban economic focal points, such as suburban office parks and regional malls, are struggling. We’re seeing de-malling and vacant office buildings, so they really have to change and adapt for the 21st Century.”

Hughes explained many suburban areas have no central area, no focal point within the community, so “they really have to think about how do we create a multi-functional center? And those are the types of areas that attract young people, that attract Millennials.”

He said towns must look for opportunities to take older suburban office buildings and malls that are in decline and use those sites to develop walkable multi-functional downtowns that include different types of housing.

He pointed out Baby Boomers whose kids have left home may want to stay in their community, but their house is too big and there aren’t any townhouses nearby where they can move to.

“There’s also a shortage of housing for young families who may want more compact housing and then there’s certainly Millennials that want rental housing,” said Hughes.

“What suburbs were in the 60’s and the 70’s, really mainly housing and then some retail, are totally obsolete as we go into the 2020’s.”

He said suburban communities that are now thriving have embraced “a downtown type of development, housing built along the streets with maybe retailing and service facilities on the ground floor.”

Hughes explained this kind of development may also include art galleries, coffee houses and other amenities that people enjoy.

“If they’re coming from outside the area, they’ll park their car and want to walk to those activities, go to a restaurant, or you might want to live in that type of development.”

He noted many empty-nester Baby Boomers who have thought about moving to Florida will decide to stay in Jersey to be near their kids and grandkids, But if those younger families can’t find living opportunities they want here and they move out of state, their parents will follow suit.

He said what’s become obvious is the old suburban model just doesn’t work anymore.

“At one time, going to the regional mall was the most exciting thing in the world — you’d spend Saturday afternoon cruising the mall. Now many people find that boring.”

Hughes added what people want is “a lot of activities, they want more collaboration, they want more interaction, much less isolation.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com