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Can we adapt our culture to attract young talent? Or do we want to? December 4, 2006

Posted by Tom in Community, Economic Development, Opinion, Workforce.
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Last week was marked by a small handful of thoughtful postings in the blogosphere that would make Richard Florida (weblog: The Creativity Exchange) blush.

In Young Workers Determine Which Cities Win In Race for Economic Growth, Smart City Memphis describes how civic leaders in Atlanta* are embracing a Smart City report on the younger workforce by launching a new campaign to attract that prized demographic. It seems like Atlanta has a strong foundation upon which to build:

“…the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce drew a line in the demographic sand, laying out the argument that the wave of 25 to 34 year-old college-educated workers moving to the Georgia capital is proof positive of its strong quality of life, its thick job market, its civic vibrancy and the importance of its 45 colleges and universities.”

[The report was picked up by the New York Times, who made it part of an article on the subject. The article now will run you $4.95, so I’ll give the link and pass on the excerpts.]

The blog entry then goes on to suggest that Atlanta’s move should be a wakeup call for the author’s home community (Memphis, Tennessee). Then, for those who are keen to issues of the “Creative Class,” the piece gives some fascinating details of the “Memphis Manifesto” – a grassroots effort of young leaders to create a common agenda that communities can embrace. Its highlights, according to Smart City Memphis, include:

  • They want a place with a green ethos, a place with outdoor recreational choices that are unique and first-class.
  • They want a place where they can be themselves, a place known for its tolerance, its diversity, and its welcoming attitude toward new people and new ideas.
  • They want a place that is vibrant, a place with vibrant neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown, and lively “scenes.”
  • They want substance over hype, they are Internet-savvy, and they will check the facts and assess cities with their peers.
  • They want a place that shows them they are valued, a place where they are invited into public discussions, where they are the subject of news coverage, and where their voices and interests are heard.
  • They want a place that is the best in something, a place that is world-class in some way and that offers something that is first, best, and only.
  • They want a place where government works and takes care of the basics, especially public transit and parks.
  • They want a place that is authentic, a place that isn’t homogenized and a place with a strong brand rooted in reality, not based on slogans and bumper stickers.

The kicker of this post is this statement, “The ability to capture these young people is already fueling the successes of cities like Austin, Atlanta, Portland, and Charlotte, where their numbers are increasing five times faster than the nation as a whole.”

Wow.  Five times faster than the nation?

There’s more after the fold…

Tory Gattis in Houston Strategies adds a powerful counterpoint to the dialogue with his Cities Compete in Hipness Battle to Attract Young posting (which offers some quotes from the New York Times article). Drawing on the Atlanta Chamber effort referenced above, Gattis adds a needed element of scrutiny:

So I dig into this study a bit, where I’m stunned to find that almost all the assertions are based on comparing the 2000 census to the 1990 census. Did anybody notice that it’s almost 2007? Hello, editors at the New York Times? This data is ancient history, and all about the dot-com boom. The economy and relative attractions of cities have shifted quite radically since then, especially as housing costs have skyrocketed on the coasts. This would be like Houston releasing a study in 1990 based on 1982 data talking about how hot Houston’s economic growth is – when everybody knows the bottom dropped out of the oil economy in 1983. Atlanta hasn’t been hurt that bad in the recent recession, but they’re certainly not doing as well as in the 1990s.

Gattis is no fan of the Richard Florida Creative Class concept, going back to a posting of October 2005 where he says:

Into this desperate situation comes Dr. Florida with the miracle cure: attract well-off childless households like singles, young or empty-nest couples, and gays. “Childless household” is not a very sexy term, so they become the “creative class” – and who doesn’t want to be a part of that? This demographic is the perfect target customer for old cities: they provide tax base, don’t care about schools, and are looking for something different from the plain-jane, child-safe, Disney-approved suburb. Voilà! A match made in heaven. Just revitalize a few funky neighborhoods here or there, have the feds build you some cool light rail, get some nightlife, arts organizations, and a few gay bars and you’re good to go. Sure, you have to get crime under control, at least in those neighborhoods, but a little focused police attention for a while should do the trick.

Gattis apparently is more of a fan of the Joel Kotkin approach to urban growth – a Blogger search of his blog reveals 3 pages of blog entries referencing Kotkin, as opposed to the one aforementioned post citing Florida. Kotkin, for those who don’t know, Kotkin promotes a concept of “New Suburbanism” (which he describes as “A Realist’s Guide to the American Future”):

For the better part of a half century, many of America’s leading urbanists, planners and architects have railed against suburbia. Variously, the suburbs have been labeled as racist, ugly, wasteful or just plain boring. Yet despite this, Americans—including many immigrants and minorities—continue to “vote with their feet” for suburban or exurban landscapes.

These areas, essentially the metropolis outside the traditional urban core, have also increasingly snagged the lion’s share of new economic growth and jobs. Projections for expansion of the built environment—estimated to grow 50 percent by 2030—will be in the suburbs and exurbs, most particularly in sprawling, lower-density and autodependent cities of the South and West. The key challenge facing developers, builders, planners and public officials, will be how to accommodate this growth.

I’ll throw my bias on the table if it’s not alredy evident.  I’m a Richard Florida fan.  But I also think that Kotkin has a number of strong points that the most devout “Floridist” needs to consider.  In fact, I used Kotkin’s 2001 collaboration with Ross DeVol, “Knowledge-Value Cities in the Digital Age,” as the basis of much of my work when I was a Chamber lobbyist in a former life.  It’s a GREAT piece – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

But I find the major philosophical difference between Florida and Kotkin, in a nutshell, to be this: Florida believes that social policy is a major driver of the Creative Class’ decision-making on where to live, whereas Kotkin doesn’t.  Florida bases his social policy argument on the concept of tolerance, for which he uses a “gay index” as a bellweather.   This basis intuitively makes sense; America, by and large, finds it hardest to be tolerant of the gay community.  If a community can be welcoming and accepting of gays and lesbians, Florida argues, it probably can be welcoming and accepting of just about anyone.

Smart City Memphis, 2 days after the aforementioned blog entry, pipes back in with an impassioned defense of Florida’s approach in “Tolerance Is A Competitive Advantage:”

Tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is becoming a priority for cities that understand how it helps to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

In our work in developing talent strategies for a half dozen large cities, it’s a common and compelling theme. It’s not simply something that comes up as a footnote in interviews, focus groups and research. To the contrary, it is uppermost in the minds of this critical part of the workforce as they make decisions on where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about ways in which the city welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices, and there is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It is in this way that the gay population is an indicator of the fundamental character of a city and serves as a foreshadowing to other indicators of economic success. To prove the point, Memphis’ rank at the bottom of the list of cities with gay populations is also where it is ranked on variety of other economic measurements.

These latest statistics about same-sex couples and the gay, lesbian and bisexual population is contained in recent report of the Williams Institute. It is reminiscent of the widely misunderstood “Gay Index” made famous by Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

And Smart City Memphis concludes its posting with this note of caution to its community:

Tolerance is more than simple decency. Today, it’s a competitive necessity, the reflection of a community that is open and inclusive at a time when these qualities are vital if it is to compete for the kinds of jobs that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

Thus ends a fascinating week of point-counterpoint in the ongoing dialogue about the drivers of the growth and suustainability of cities.

Permit me to throw out the larger question, indicated in the title of this post: Can we adapt our communities’ cultures to attract the young knowledge workers that employers and governments relish?

Or do we really want to?  By that I am really asking two questions:

  1. Do we want to make the cultural tradeoffs necessary to attract young talent, as Florida and Smart City Memphis suggest?
  2. Do we really want to attract that young population?

The first question can be taken at face value, but the second question goes to the heart of my Heartland residency.  As a workforce professional who works alongside economic developers, it makes perfect sense to attract young professionals.  But I honestly wonder if those who hold the levers of power are making this a policy priority.  There are many, many strategies that can be used to attract young professionals, not all involving “tolerance” and all that entails.  But they all involve change in priorities and attitudes.  Whenever the thought of change is raised, “delicate Midwestern sensibilities” bristle.

We’re in a new world.  We no longer live in the world of “Happy Days“.  Social and economic tectonic plates are shifting underneath our feet as I type.  Go read The World Is Flat if you don’t believe me.  If one is interested in the continued viability of their community, they must be willing and accepting of the need for change, because the world is changing around them.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the back and forth from this past week and hope that other community weblogs pipe in with their thoughts on these topics.  And, as always, I welcome your comments.  Blogs are about expressing opinions and information; I hope we all do just that.

*Note that it was a Chamber of Commerce that stepped up to promote this project.  If anyone wants to doubt the relevance of trade associations or Chambers in today’s world, just take a look at this impressive example of civic leadership.  And it’s not just the Atlanta Chamber that’s fighting this fight…many, many Chambers are the lynchpin of young professional networks and young professional attraction efforts.  

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