Why Young Talent?

There are many who question why it is that folks like us place such a high priority on retaining and attracting recent college graduates. Why pick one demographic group over the others? Aren’t they all important?

No one asked that question for the past century when we paid special attention to high paid factory workers. And for more than a century as we continue to pay special attention to farmers. We did both because we thought their success enriched us all.

Today the role that high paid factory workers played for the past century is now being played by mobile talent. Young professionals will do fine wherever they go. But if they choose not to live and work in Michigan its the rest of us who are the losers. Because, to quote Forbes publisher Rick Karlgaard, “where they go, robust economic activity will follow”.

So the overly simplistic answer to why pay special attention to young professionals is: its the economy stupid! We close all our presentation with the tag line: either we get younger and better educated or we get poorer.

Michigan’s demographic trends are that we are aging far quicker than the country and that we are stuck in the mid thirties in college attainment. In a knowledge-based economy, that is a recipe for being one of the poorest states in the nation. An important reason – and the most promising way to reverse those trends – is we have not created the kind of places where our college educated kids and grand kids – and their peers from across the planet – want to live and work.

Some facts from our Young Talent in the Great Lakes report make crystal clear the magnitude of the challenge. Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids have fifty percent fewer young professional households than metro Chicago and Minneapolis. That is a 35,000 household gap in metro GR and a 140,000 in metro Detroit. Its hard to imagine any other demographic group with that kind of disparity.

Why do metro Chicago and Minneapolis matter? They are the most prosperous regions in the Great Lakes. With per capita incomes roughly twelve percent higher than metro Detroit and twenty five percent higher than metro GR. And the major reason for that gap: the proportion of adults with a four year degree. Its by far the single best predictor of prosperity.

The maps in the report dramatically depict why vibrant central cities matter. Young professionals – the most mobile of all demographic groups – before they have kids are increasingly concentrating in central city neighborhoods that are high density, mixed use and walkable. When they have kids they move to the suburbs. But because mobility declines dramatically as you get into your thirties and have kids, its the suburbs of the city they live in, not Michigan’s, where most will raise their kids.

The numbers: in the City of Chicago there are 226,000 young professional households; 43,000 in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined; in Detroit 15,000 and in Grand Rapids its 10,000.

So young professionals are the group we are having the most difficulty getting to live here and they are the most important to future economic success. That is the reason to make them a priority. Somehow we have failed to understand what seems like common sense, that if we don’t create a place where our own college educated kids want to live, we will not have a vibrant economy in the future. Its that simple!

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