Do Millennials Want to Call Your City ‘Home’?

July 7, 2014 15 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Millions of millennials will soon be putting down roots. Cities and suburbs that are less attractive to them have a limited window to turn things around. William Fulton, the mayor of Ventura, California and GOVERNING's economic development columnist, provides his thoughts on this subject. Is Jacksonville a city Millennials may want to call 'home'?

I knew the “brain drain” problem had reached a crisis point when they started talking about it in Boston.

You know the story: Kids move to where they want to live and then look for a job, not the other way around. They’re drawn to a small number of hip metro areas (D.C., San Francisco, Seattle) and smaller cities (Boulder, Colo.; Missoula, Mont.; Palo Alto, Calif.) around the country and hip employers follow them. The result is an upward cycle of talent and jobs and business growth in the fashionable places, and a downward cycle everywhere else.

It’s not unusual to hear people complain about this problem in Middle America, or in second-tier cities without a big university, or in populous but aging suburban locations such as Long Island, N.Y. But it’s not a common thing to hear about in a place like Boston, which has the greatest concentration of universities in the country, lots of cool neighborhoods and a big chunk of the innovation economy.

The problem, Massachusetts economic development folks say, is that metro Boston is so expensive they can’t keep the kids, especially after those kids begin to have their own kids. Yes, they can live in tiny city apartments, or maybe in a pleasant older suburb like Newton -- if they can afford it. After that, they are living somewhere beyond Interstate 495 and the reach of most commuter rail lines. What Boston needs, the experts say, is more starter homes in interesting, transit-rich locations.

Don’t we all. If Boston can’t stop the brain drain, is there any hope for the rest of us? Yes, but it requires a concentrated effort to create compelling places to live and work -- and fast. Because of the demographics of young talent, the cities and suburbs on the downward cycle have a limited window to turn things around: ten years at most, and maybe no more than five.

Here are the facts most people know: For the foreseeable future, the so-called millennials (currently ages 18-30) will drive both the housing market and the fast-growing innovation economy. It’s a huge cohort of about 70 million people. And as I mentioned above, they are gravitating toward a select group of metros and small cities.

But there are a couple of other facts that we don’t usually think about.

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