Millennials are a perennially useful jumping-off point for observations about, well, just about everything. It may simply be because there are so many of them. They always appear to be forging new pathways, although this is likely by virtue of their sheer volume. Even so, the more we learn about this group of young people, the more we get a sense of deja vu. More than anything, millennials are pointing us in the direction of well-worn paths and decades-old truths.
The Post recently described Arlington as a “millennial-dependent” county that is facing questions about how, or whether, to invest in retaining millennials as they age (and have children and face shifting priorities). What does a city or suburb face in terms of housing options, schools and other services to continue to cater to millennials?
There are a lot of millennials in Northern Virginia. There are close to 80,000 adults ages 18 to 34 in Arlington — 37 percent of the population there. In Fairfax County, there are nearly 250,000 residents in that age group, more than 20 percent of our population. In both communities, millennials already make up about a third of the workforce.
But the underlying premise — that public officials need to be especially mindful of policies targeted at millennials — is emblematic of something that is overlooked when we talk about this age group: The things we believe this cohort values — access to public transit, walkability, proximity to shops, greenspace — are also what baby boomers (and Generation X, the often-overlooked middle child of this spectrum) say they want. And the parallels extend beyond where and how they want to live.
For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers surveyed 40,000 of its employees around the world to figure out how to best improve retention among millennials. The company discovered that what millennials wanted most — a work/life balance — is a priority among staff across all generations. Similarly, a survey by AARP found that older Americans want to be near a bus stop and a park and have walkable streets, better schools and transit options. Sound familiar? These are, indeed, the very things we all want from our communities. The trick, of course, is that they are not at all easy to achieve, especially for communities developed within a traditional suburban model.
The issue should be less about millennials and more about what every community should be investing in to remain competitive in offering quality of life. It’s a calculus I’ve long understood. In Fairfax County, while we’re arguably best known for our employment centers, our schools and the safety and affordability of housing options have always been the true backbone of our success.
The county spends more than half of its budget on the public school system and also invests heavily in parks, public safety, social services, planning and transit (think Metro’s Silver Line and related development). That investment benefits all residents and those who work here.
While lists of millennial “boom towns” proliferate, Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., noted that millennials also are flocking to places such as Detroit and Charlotte. These cities have long-term plans for economic development based on hard lessons of the recent past. They know all too well that long-term, sustainable economic success demands a diverse economy. Diverse economies are built upon a diverse, creative, motivated workforce. And how do you attract that kind of workforce? You guessed it: quality of life.
Economic planning that is driven by an unwavering commitment to improving the quality of life is a decades-old strategy that has served previous generations exceptionally well — and will serve future generations, too.
The writer is president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.
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