WHAT’S GOING ON IN THAT MILLENNIAL MIND?

Written by RDG Principal Nicole Bogdan
 
Last fall, I had the privilege of attending the Metro Cities Dinner at ACCE’s Annual Conference in Savannah, GA.  I was seated at a table with a group of individuals, all of them important leaders in their respective organizations from around the country. The conversation eased into the subject of millennials fairly quickly as it was apparent as a 27 year old that, in fact, I am a millennial. I seem to find myself in these conversations quite often these days; everyone in my professional world seems to be racing to figure out how to attract and retain millennial talent.

The operative question from this Chamber CEO was “What do you want in a community?” He wanted to know what amenities attract my attention, what factors influence my decision to establish myself in a certain city, and what he should be focusing on in his region to aid in attracting and keeping this powerful and influential generation. I was happy to share my thoughts, as I personally have thought about this very question quite a bit in recent years while in the process of establishing myself.

Like many people my age I currently live in a community chosen FOR me by necessity, not chosen BY me.  It’s a southern coastal military community that has nine Dollar Generals*, five Family Dollars, and two Dollar Trees within twenty miles of my front door. I drive thirty five miles one way to shop at stores such as Target or Bed Bath and Beyond and I drive seventy five miles one way to my preferred warehouse club in order to save money and buy in bulk. Why is this relevant?  My community specifically has lost 25% of its residents between the ages of twenty and forty four in the last fifteen years. They are asking the same question I was asked and wondering how they can grow a region that predominately caters to retirees at the present time.

Our demographics support some of the key retail business missing from our community, but such businesses face hard opposition from an aging group of leaders who want to preserve the local business environment and prevent this small community from becoming more than a charming and quiet vacation retreat or retirement home. On our ballot this November we had two referendums that both failed- one to provide additional funding for much needed infrastructure improvements and one to provide education funding to our struggling public schools. As a young person, none of this makes me feel particularly enthusiastic about staying here.

So how did I respond to this Chamber CEO? My opinion is only one of many, but to the extent my views are representative of my fellow millennials, here’s what I think:

When choosing a community, we continue to ask the same questions our parents did such as “What is the average home price?”,  “How are the schools?” “Is the neighborhood safe?”  However, our thoughts go beyond a single-family home with a two-car garage and picket fence.
Perhaps because we watched our parents hustle hard to provide a great life for us and burden themselves with stress as a result, we seem to approach where we live differently than those who came before us. We are still working forty-hour weeks so we want to be able to conveniently run our errands near our office or near our home. It’s easy to cook a fresh and healthy meal for our family if we can walk or quickly drive to a nearby store that offers healthy options. It’s helpful to our budgets (that are often burdened by student loan debt) to be able to shop at local stores that give us quality products for a fair price. We look for various physical activities that will help us stay active and give us an outlet for our energy, our stress, and our bad “juju”, which in turn helps us to better apply ourselves in our workplace.

Balance to us is key. We don’t want to spend 45 minutes in a car to get to our jobs nor do we want to have jobs that consume our lives. We feel we are our best selves when we can balance our needs and responsibilities easily. I suppose in that respect, we have become our parents! Except now we know that fat-free foods don’t make us lose weight.

I believe the game changer for my generation is that we have grown up with the internet, which in turn has shown us how much there is to do and see out in the world.  In short, we are the first truly global generation!  We don’t want to spend our Friday nights at home watching Netflix. After sitting in an office all day, we want to be able to go out to a local concert or meet friends at happy hour. We look forward to spending our weekends outside in parks or on bike trails or in community pools, away from digital screens. A community that provides these options brings a lot more to the table.

Moreover, we are more aware than ever before of the world around us and how we personally can influence our surroundings in positive ways. We want to help and if we have opportunities, we will definitely roll up our sleeves and jump in with both feet. Funding can be an issue, which is where volunteer leadership and labor can be useful. In Maryland, my family and I were able to participate in a program through a national association as a volunteer to help build a commuting bike trail.  This association helped the county to build a connector trail with 100% volunteer leadership and assistance, which saved the county from having to find public funds to pay for it. One of my relatives raised funds in her community in Alabama to have a local park built. Students at my alma mater, Michigan State University, were instrumental in getting a bike share program approved in 2013. Millennials are energized and ready to lean in and volunteer to make projects like these possible.

Source:  The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2017. Read more here
This brings me to my final discussion point with my engaged audience at our dinner table.  When millennials move to a community for a job, while we will weigh and consider all of the previously mentioned factors, there is also one more crucial question on our minds:  Are there professional opportunities for me beyond this position?  You see this is another fundamental difference between millennials and their parents; we don’t possess the same professional “loyalty”.  Don’t misunderstand my point here.  We are very loyal to our employers but it’s a different type of loyalty.  It’s very difficult for us to see ourselves working for the same company for decades while that was the norm for many older generations.

I am less likely to buy a house in a region that doesn’t offer me a robust job network because I don’t want to be stuck in a mortgage with (yes, that familiar word) debt if I can’t find another job to be able to afford my payments. Due to lack of diversity of industry in my community that caters to the military, many military spouses that move here every year can’t find jobs. These are spouses with two or four year degrees, sometimes higher, who end up working in restaurants as waitresses or staying home and choosing not to work at all. Again, we watched our parents struggle through these trials and we have been trying to approach it differently.  (See related article:  http://www.newamerica.org/weekly/edition-144/silent-sacrifice-military-spouse-unemployment-america/)

As an economic development professional it is my job to understand what brings growth to a community and how regions that need to be revived can bring life back into their borders as I help them find financial support to advance their strategies. I sit in a unique position as I straddle the line between this world and that of a millennial. Communities that are looking to attract more young professionals need only to look within to find millennials in their community that can help them realize their goals. I certainly will continue to work to find opportunities in my own community that will hopefully start to reverse the decline in population of young residents and help to connect the dots between millennials and the important developments they can influence.

*At the publishing of this blog, a tenth Dollar General will now be open for business in my town.

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