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January 27th | Posted In Philadelphia, Policy

One Blogger’s Take on the Pew’s Millennials in Philadelphia Report

By admin

It’s like college again.

The coverage of Pew’s recent report on millennials sent me back to my sophomore year philosophy seminar, rolling my eyes as I listened to a pretentious yet deluded senior falsely accuse Nietzsche of nihilism and crimping all of his ideas from Schopenhauer when the professor suddenly snapped.   After informing him of how to properly pronounce the German’s name and explaining that he rejected the asceticism of otherworldly religion in favor of the full embrace of tangible life on this earth, the professor cruelly hissed “Where the hell did you get nihilism from the Genealogy of Morals?  Did you even read it?!” 

I want to shout Did you even read it!?to nearly everyone commenting on Pew’s report.  Like the Genealogy of Morals, it’s a wonderful read, fascinating and enlightening.  (Full disclosure: the report quotes me, so it could have been awful and I’d still like it a bit.  But, seriously, it is full of engrossing data that even unbiased geeks will love.)

Philadelphia Business Journal’s Craig Ey publicly shamed my generation on Twitter, saying “Hey, millennials, instead of ‘bemoaning’ litter, crime and bad schools — Stay and fix them!”  The Inquirer and Daily News both led with the report’s scariest stat: that about half of the millennials said they expected to leave Philadelphia in five-to-ten years.  This, and the fact that only 36% of Philadelphia millennials would recommend the city as a good place to raise children, makes my generation sound like rats ready to abandon a sinking ship.  But those statistics, out of context, do not tell the full story.

Obviously, young people are more likely to move.

First off, of course young people are more likely to move than older residents.  The odds of a recent college grad changing jobs (or even careers) that might require a move are way higher: a 2010 Pew report entitled “Millennials: Confident.  Connected. Open to Change,” showed that 66% of millennials expected to switch careers, compared to 55% of Gen Xers and 31% of Baby Boomers.  We are less likely to own homes or have kids – the types of things that make someone more likely to stay put.  It would be weird if millennials didn’t expect to move.  And, as noted in that 2010 Pew study, millennials are less likely to be employed full-time than older generations, in part because millennials are students (who are inherently more mobile than non-students) and in part because the recession has been disproportionately harsh on younger workers.

So of course 38% of those who say they might change cities cite career considerations for that contemplated move.  Even diehard Philadelphians move for major career changes.  Consider Tim Quirino, cofounder of Geekadelphia and a designer for P’unk Ave, who recently left to work at Facebook.  In an interview with Christopher Wink on Technical.ly Philly, he said, “My leaving is not a result of Philadelphia’s shortcomings. It is simply a matter of timing and opportunity with a company where I can make a definitive impact in the way human connections are fostered worldwide. Philadelphia as a city didn’t do anything wrong. In fact the community is on its way to serious recognition and it just has to stick to its roots.”

Second, millennials aren’t the only ones who think that Philly schools leave something to be desired.  81% of millennials may have negative impression of Philadelphia’s schools, but so too do 76% of older residents.  This is nothing new to Philadelphia (or cities in general), and not particular to our generation.   As WHYY’s Elizabeth Fiedler put it , “Once your kids hit the age of 5, its time to move to the suburbs.  Or at least that’s how it has gone for generations of middle-and upper-class parents in Philadelphia.”  But, as Fiedler goes on to note, “these days some Philadelphians are taking a different approach”, staying in the city and working to improve their neighborhood schools.  Want to guess who those Philadelphians are?

That’s rightMillennials.

Unfortunately, Pew’s study didn’t provide historical comparisons (presumably because that data just doesn’t exist), nor did it provide comparisons to other cities.

Quirino says he wants to return to Philadelphia if it’s the best place for him.  But he also “wants a fully funded transit system — talk to Harrisburg about that — and, yes, you guessed it, he wants faith in a public school system that would convey this is a place to build a family.”

The important take away from the Pew report is not that millennials are flaky or less loyal than our elders.  It’s that Philadelphia should want us to stick around.  Along with immigrants, millennials helped reverse Philadelphia’s long population decline.

Are Millennials Less Committed to Their Communities?

While it is true that millennials are somewhat less likely to vote than older residents, there has always been a gap between young voters (18-29) and older voters (30+), according to the 2010 Pew Report.  In fact, that gap was 25 percentage points 2000 (the last election most Millennials could not participate in), with only 40% of younger voters voting.   But in 2004, 2008 and 2012 voter turnout amongst young voters jumped to 49%, 51% and 50%, respectively,  In other words, Millennials are voting more than their older siblings did when they were our age., and the same as our baby boomer parents did.

In local elections, millennials reacted the same as the rest of the city: indifferently.  Only 9% of young voters went to the polls, but our apathy was shared by our elders: overall turnout was merely 11.5%.

But that’s only voting – just one aspect to civic engagement.  Millennials are more likely to volunteer than the older generations: 57% of Millennials volunteer, compared to just 54% of Gen Xers, 52% of Boomers and 39% of the Silent Generation.  Compared to older generations, Millennials aren’t just bemoaning the situation – sorry Craig  – we actually do something about it.

That said, the Philly millennial report noted that only 54% of millennials say that Philadelphia is a good or excellent place to live, compared to 62% of all other age groups.  This is the one stat that really needs to be investigated.  Are all newcomers to Philly (millennials compromise about 2/3rds of newly arrived residents) just as likely to hold their new home in relatively low regard compared to long-term residents?   Do millennials in other cities express similarly negative opinions of those towns – are we just negative as a generation?   Or is there something unique here souring millennials perception of Philadelphia?

Philadelphia is competing with Boston, not Blue Bell.

According to a 2012 study by Robert Charles Lesser & Co., 88% of all millennials want to live in urban places.  Philadelphia’s millennial boom is part of a national trend.  While there will be individuals who will trade a short walk commute for a large yard, our generation is simply more likely to prefer cities.  Philly’s millennials aren’t threatening to move to the burbs so much as other cities, and are likely motivated by career advancement than a dislike of Philadelphia.

Philly’s growth in millennials as a share over overall city population has outpaced Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco and Denver and triples the median in the largest 30 cities in America.

The question is whether we are relatively outpacing other cities – and whether we will continue to do so.  Consider this quote from Anna Stormer in the latest Pew report:

Anna Stormer, 28, a Manayunk resident, moved to Philadelphia from Akron, Ohio, two years ago, on the strength of her positive impressions of the city while visiting a friend attending St. Joseph’s University. She did not have a job but has since found work at a nonprofit and has come to love the city. “People say there’s not enough opportunity here,” she said, “but there’s more than in Akron.”

Right now, Philadelphia is outcompeting Akron right now for the Annas of the world.  We will lose some Annas to the suburbs as they grow older and have little Annas of their own.  The real question, though, is whether the next generation of Anna (Anna 2.0) will still see Philadelphia as having more opportunity than Akron.

Pew’s latest confirmed what I’ve noted before, that my generation cares about being good parents and advancing their careers.  If Philadelphia wants to keep us, and attract the next generation of young people (including retaining and attracting the 450,000 college students in the Greater Philadelphia area), more jobs and better schools are where they can start.

“Millennials affection for Philadelphia is conditional.”

It’s true.  We are fickle.  But I defy anyone to find me a demographic for which that sentence is not also true.  Cities are loved because they inspire and connect us, support and sustain us, lead and provide for us.   When a city fails to do those things, it stops being a place beloved and becomes a land benighted.  When the rust belt cities could no longer support and sustain their populations, they suffered greatly.  There is no shortage of former Michiganders who lament Detroit’s decline.

Many of my fellow millennials have no desire to leave the City of Brotherly Love.  Nor do we demand anything that others in the city shouldn’t also want to see: better schools, more jobs, and safer streets.  Our priorities may differ slightly, and many might be more prone to leave, but that doesn’t mean millennials deserve moral opprobrium.  It means we all need to focus on Philly and do more, together, to solve our shared problems and continue our city’s rebirth.

Millennials are not Philadelphia’s Übermenschen, or its saviors, or its traitors.  We’re simply another piece of the puzzle that all of us should be trying to solve.

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