Wanted: The Young and Restless
Recent headlines about the latest census data on U.S. cities have had city leaders -- most notably D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams -- fretting. According to the new numbers, Washington has lost about 20,000 residents over the past five years at a time when Williams very publicly pledged to add 100,000 people by 2010.
While these reports should certainly be cause for concern, city leaders would be wise to shift their attention to another set of data that points to a positive trend occurring in cities: the preference among 25- to 34-year-old college-educated workers to live in neighborhoods within three miles of a city's center.
Why is this demographic -- and its geographic preferences -- important?
Over the past four decades, we've enjoyed rapid growth in the quantity and quality of the U.S. workforce. But the three decisive forces that drove this growth -- the sizable baby boom generation, the dramatic economic impact of women entering the workforce and the impressive increase in college graduation rates -- will run out of steam or shift into reverse in the next two decades.
In response, cities must focus their energies on attracting and retaining a group we call "The Young and Restless": young, mobile, college-educated workers. They are a key indicator of the economic success of cities in the knowledge economy, where prosperity hinges on the ability to come up with new ideas.
A recent study by the organization CEOs for Cities ("The Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy") revealed that this demographic is roughly 34 percent more likely to prefer close-in neighborhoods than people in other age groups (up from 10 percent in 1980 and 12 percent in 1990). This was true in every one of the top 50 metropolitan areas in the United States.
Metro areas with vital centers will fare better in attracting talented young adults.
To continue with the example of Washington, data from the 2000 Census show that this city's close-in neighborhoods have a higher level of college attainment than in most other close-in neighborhoods in large U.S. metropolitan areas -- higher than Atlanta and much higher than fast-growing Phoenix or Las Vegas.
More than 65 percent of the 25- to 34-year-olds living within three miles of the center of the region (measured from the White House) have a four-year degree or higher level of education, a rate only slightly lower than for close-in San Francisco (67 percent) and significantly higher than hip Seattle (56 percent).
City planners in the District clearly appreciate the significance of vibrant neighborhoods, showcased by the new theaters and shops downtown as well as the city's marketing campaign "City Living, D.C. Style." Walkable destinations, lively commercial districts and interesting streets are attractive to the Young and Restless. Good public services, including transit and parks, can also make close-in neighborhoods more appealing.
The ability to capture these young people is already playing an integral role in some cities' economic success. Booming metro economies such as Charlotte, Austin, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., have increased the number of college-educated adults about five times faster than the nation as a whole. Cities that are losing young college graduates, such as Hartford, Conn., and Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., are struggling.
So whether the census numbers are right or wrong may not be as important to cities as it used to be. What's clear is that cities will succeed or fail depending on how much they appeal to this talent-rich pool. And if the number of cranes dotting the D.C. skyline and the still-hot housing market are any indicator, the city continues to position itself well in the race for talent.
Joseph Cortright is an economist with Impresa Inc. Carol Coletta is president and chief executive of CEOs for Cities, a network of urban leaders committed to strengthening America's cities.