Detroit's youth look to the open road

The collapse of America's auto industry and the U.S. economy has left Detroit in shambles. In a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University Detroit poll, many residents believe their economy is in ruins.
By Jennifer Agiesta and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 2, 2010; 9:01 PM

The weight of Detroit's economic downturn is particularly heavy on the area's young adults, with those under 30 suffering job losses, cuts in pay or hours and difficulties trying to find new jobs in greater numbers than their elders. More than four in 10 area residents aged 18 to 29 say they plan to seek their fortunes elsewhere, according to the new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University Detroit poll.

Two-thirds of young adults in the area have been hit by the sagging job market, compared with less than half of older adults. About half say they or someone in their household has lost a job or had a cut in work hours or pay in the past year, and nearly three in 10 say they or someone they live with has given up looking for work because of a lack of good jobs. About one in five live in households experiencing all three setbacks.

Looking ahead, young Detroiters in the labor market express concern about their ability to succeed in the job market; more than four in 10 say they lack the skills or education to compete and more than six in 10 worry about finding a good job.

Brandy Murdoch, a 19-year-old Macomb County resident interviewed for the poll, said she's become more discouraged about her future in the region.

"You have to go to school for a long, long time if you want to find a decent career and stay in Michigan," she said. "There are no opportunities here."

While a broad majority of young adults, like those ages 30 and up, are optimistic about the future of the Detroit area, their take on Detroit's current state is less rosy. Just 6 percent of young Detroiters use a positive word when asked to describe the area, compared with 15 percent among older residents. And a scant one in eight says they are completely satisfied with their lives, a figure that stands at two in 10 among older Detroiters.

Murdoch and a friend plan to move to Georgia this fall in search of good jobs. She says her mother approves: "My mom says to me, 'Hey if I was 19, I would move in a heartbeat, too."

Jenae Chinn, a 26-year-old customer service representative who lives in Wayne County, has a similar outlook: "I just don't see things getting better here in metro Detroit. There aren't any real, good, long-term opportunities here that seem stable."

Overall, 43 percent of Detroit's younger residents say they plan to leave the area amid a widespread sense that the region is not a good place to raise a family and the area's neighborhoods are declining.

Just 39 percent of young Detroiters call the area a "very good" or "good" place to raise a family, with about a quarter calling it "not good at all." A third say their neighborhood has become a worse place to live in the past five years.

The region's economic difficulties strike the young more emotionally and in their wallets. Almost three-quarters say they are stressed by the economic situation, and many report having trouble keeping up with basic expenses in the past year; About a third had trouble paying credit card debt or medical bills; a quarter struggled with housing costs and two in 10 had a hard time affording food. All told, more than half of those under 30 have had financial difficulties in the past year, far outpacing the rate among those aged 30 and up.

Some, but not all, of these differences stem from the fact that young adults just starting out in careers typically have lower incomes than those with more years in the workforce.

Housing is a particular concern for the young in the Detroit area. About a quarter say they fell behind on their rent or mortgage, a similar proportion had to change their living arrangements as a result of the downturn and nearly half worry about being able to find or afford a decent place to live.

Despite these concerns, younger Detroiters are an optimistic group, especially when it comes to their own lives. Nearly all expect their personal standard of living to rise over the next decade, and nearly six in 10 say the best years for America's workers are yet to come.

Katrina Robinson, an 18-year-old college student from Macomb County who also responded to the survey, said she is "very, very frustrated" with the auto industry and Michigan economy after watching her parents struggle to make ends meet. "I'm a freshman in college now," the aspiring teacher said, "so I hope things are going to pick up by the time I graduate."

More than three-quarters of young adults say they think the auto industry will recover, but nearly a third say the region's economy can recover even if this doesn't happen.

Agiesta reported from Washington, Hedgpeth from Detroit. Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.

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