Tel Aviv: From City That Never Sleeps to City of Sleeping Babies

Young people didn't leave Tel Aviv, they just grew older and stayed. But can the metropolis handle its changing demography?

Illustration: Mother and son, Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv.
Nir Kafri

If young people and nonstop nightlife were once the hallmarks of Tel Aviv, lately the "city that never sleeps" has undergone some demographic changes. Nowadays, it's increasingly a city of parents with young children.

There has been a sharp drop in the number of residents in their twenties, along with a rise in the number of young parents with children. If in the past people lived there until they started their families, subsequently leaving for the suburbs, many are now choosing to raise their children in the heart of the throbbing metropolis. This can be seen across the city, but more so in central Tel Aviv. Increasing numbers of businesses are appealing to younger families and the municipality has had to adapt by opening new schools and kindergartens, after years of relative standstill.

“For decades people came here in their 20s and left in their 30s, but in recent years they remain and raise their children here,” says acting and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, Asaf Zamir. “This is the result of an improved quality of life, along with a global trend of moving into city centers, as well as a polarization in Israeli society in terms of politics and values, with many people feeling that this was the only place they could live in accordance with their worldview.”

Estimates are that 79,000 people aged 20-29 lived in Tel Aviv in 2008, comprising 20 percent of the population. Six years later their numbers dropped to 63,000, making up only 15 percent of the city’s residents. The city’s research department says that young people didn’t leave — they grew older and stayed. The number of 30-44 year-olds increased by 20 percent over the same period, with a 15 percent rise in the number of children under 14.

“This has considerable impact” says Zamir. “It shows that the city is a desirable place to live in, with good services and quality of life. In contrast, some of the avant garde and boisterous character of the city was affected by the lack of population changeover, which is critical for a thriving creative population. Despite this, thousands of young people are still doing significant things here and many places are still open at 4 or 5 A.M.”

Writer Magi Otsri noted last year how surprised she and her husband were to find empty streets late at night. “We wondered if the city that never stops had actually done so.”

Tel Aviv historian Ilan Shchori disputes this. “Some neighborhoods, such as Florentin, are full of young people. There are new pubs and restaurants opening on Dizengoff Street – this shows that young people are coming here to have fun even if they don’t live here. The city is now more homogenous. Younger people can’t afford housing prices here and will look elsewhere, in the suburbs. However, it’s still a city that’s open around the clock. It hasn’t lost its touch.”

Zamir exemplifies this trend. He became deputy mayor at the age of 28, going out on the town every night. Now, at the age of 36, he is getting married and frequents bars and clubs much less. He holds the education portfolio at City Hall, and says that in contrast to the 250 kindergartens in 2008, the city now has 570. Three years ago there were 60 elementary schools and now there are 70.

The city isn’t coping that well with the increase, partly due to a lack of open spaces for building schools and classes are becoming overcrowded. Overall, the number of residents leaving the city is higher than the number of those moving in, with a 5 percent annual turnover, which is larger than in other Israeli cities.

Demographer prof. Arnon Sofer believes that worsening traffic jams will make life in Tel Aviv intolerable. “We are like Los Angeles, I don’t think there is a solution,” he says, adding that the demographic trends are similar to other metropolitan areas such as London, New York and Sao Paolo. “It’s a known phenomenon, with older people not leaving and the city’s rejuvenation passing them by. People with money live in high-rise towers while the others have a rough time. However, Tel Aviv will remain a powerhouse,” he says.