America’s mayors would do just about anything—give massive tax breaks to tech giants, liberally hand out liquor licenses for Sunday brunch, convert a city park into an avocado grove—to attract millennials.
But they know that luring America’s largest age demographic to their cities is a far more complex and challenging proposition, requiring them to solve major issues such as mass transit, affordable housing and job availability, even as they puzzle over the sometimes perplexing ways of an age group that tends not to engage with traditional civic institutions like previous generations.
That’s the takeaway from the 11th installment of the anonymous, nonscientific survey of America’s mayors, part of POLITICO Magazine’s award-winning What Works series. Of the nearly 50 city hall leaders who responded, 85 percent listed attracting millennials—roughly ages 20 to 35—as a top-10 priority of their administration, with 41 percent reporting it in the top five. And nearly a third of mayors take the task of luring millennials to their cities seriously enough that they’ve created a city office (or at least a job) for that explicit purpose.
The reasons why the mayors pine for the nation’s roughly 75 million millennials are varied, according to the quarterly survey, which drew responses from city halls as large as Las Vegas to smaller metropolises such as Madison, Wisconsin, from Seattle to Boston. More than three-quarters of the respondents were Democrats, reflecting the generally liberal tilt of urban governments. The largest share of the mayors, 33 percent, value millennials’ status as a highly educated workforce. Almost another third mentioned their innovative ideas about community development, and 15 percent cited simply their “youthful energy.”
But it’s what they can offer millennials that often presents the biggest challenges for mayors.
A majority surveyed agree that the biggest impediments to attracting and retaining millennials aren’t a lack of craft breweries or walkable retail promenades, but the absence of affordable housing or reliable public transit (with 40 percent and 28 percent of respondents listing them as their biggest obstacles, respectively). But there’s also a kind of lost-in-translation problem, a sense among America’s urban leaders that they don’t entirely get this crucial demographic. It might be a function of the fact that they don’t know what’s on the minds of the young people who already live in their cities: two-thirds of mayors surveyed said they hadn’t identified millennial community leaders or spokespeople to engage with.
But there’s evident candor among mayors about this communication gap. One of the most common answers when city leaders were asked what they most frequently get wrong about millennials is that the tendency to treat them as a monolith. “[We] act as if millennials can all be lumped into one group when in reality they have varied interests and beliefs,” one mayor said. “They are each their own person and not just a hipster caricature.” But it cuts both ways, the mayors said. When asked what frustrates them the most about this prized demographic, a frequent criticism from mayors was millennials’ perceived failure to get involved in public life. Said one mayor: “They love to attend festivals, but don’t vote in local elections.”
If there’s unanimity in the value civic leaders place on millennials, the methods by which they aim to attract them are more disparate. A plurality of respondents at 47 percent reported that cultural amenities were the “single most important characteristic” that they touted when attracting millennials to their cities. But when quizzed on the largest impediment to that goal, a solid majority cited a lack of either transit or affordable housing, with only 13 percent saying a lack of those cultural amenities is holding them back. In other words, for many of America’s mayors, both the problem and the solution still elude ready identification.
When asked what specific initiatives mayors have taken to attract and retain millennials, their scattershot responses reflected that they are not working out of the same playbook. Many cities mentioned new transit initiatives, akin to the Green Line light rail system that relinked Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Teaming up with employers was a common refrain as well, with mayors noting the success of young professionals in attracting millennial-friendly businesses like Uber or Trader Joe’s to their urban cores. But many of the mayors say they have doubled down on styling their cities as cultural bastions, using the familiar tactic of establishing a special “cultural district” as a magnet.
“People recognize that to keep millennials in your city you want to have affordable housing, good transportation, good schools,” said William Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “But instead they read these books about having cool cities, and coffee shops, and jazz clubs or whatever, and the key thing is, as with any other generation, when they have kids and start jobs and careers they’ve typically always moved to the suburbs.”
So retaining millennials as they age into those careers, marriages and families, is the key issue. And the mayors express some parental-like frustration with a younger generation that just doesn’t act like they want or expect them to, especially when it comes to the often slow pace of civic change. One mayor noted millennials’ “tendency to get frustrated with and give up on potential community allies when others don’t ‘get it’ as quickly as millennials think they should.” Another mayor of a major city lamented the disconnect when “young people move to our city for four years and leave without ever engaging with their local neighborhood groups or municipal government.”
One reason for millennials’ short stays may be the kind of housing crunch that has affected Seattle in the wake of its tech-driven colonization, as well as the affordability issues native to traditional hubs like New York and San Francisco. Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University, has chronicled how millennials are increasingly drawn to less-dense cities in the Sun Belt and other not-so-hip areas not traditionally known for easy access to gluten-free pizza and $200-per-week “co-working” spaces.
“People get into their 30s and their priorities change—it’s not a hard concept,” says Kotkin. “I have a colleague in Seattle who’s said, ‘Look, Amazon has a real problem, and it’s that they can’t hold their employees after two to three years because they can’t afford to live in Seattle.’”
“Millennials are making different choices,” he continued. “Some people are going to Nashville, and saying they can live a walkable life there and they can actually afford it. If you want to live that urban core life for 5-10 years and then you get married and want to move to the suburbs, you can still do it.”
Those cities that are rapidly gaining ground through migration in the battle for America’s young adults also owe their status, in part, to an unexpected factor—the pro-business economic policies of the red states in which many of them are located. Nearly half of the survey’s respondents are from states whose electoral votes went to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, including growing hubs like Charlotte, Austin and Tampa.
In response to the question: “What policy proposed or enacted by the Trump administration has had or will have the greatest impact on your city?” Mayor G.T. Bynum of Tulsa, in deep-red Oklahoma, wrote that “President Trump’s focus on deregulation has been good for the energy industry in our city, boosting confidence and spurring job growth.” Other positive responses included “reduction of project review times by federal agencies,” “tax cuts and tax reform,” and multiple hopeful references to the president’s myriad promises of infrastructure investment.
This doesn’t mean, however, that America’s mayors aren’t keenly tuned in to what some of them see as the divisiveness of Trump’s brand of nativist conservatism. Several of them went on the record to call it out as harmful to their city’s diversity and vitality. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whom 71 percent of survey respondents identified as having the brightest future among the nation’s small batch of millennial mayors, said he sees the president’s agenda as directly opposed to his goal of community-building.
“The biggest effects [of the Trump administration on cities] have come not from the president’s policies, but from his language,” Buttigieg wrote. “We have seen increases in bullying, racial and ethnic tension, and social anxiety as the fabric of our country and community are torn by this president. Mayors are in the business of keeping communities together, and it is important to have a White House that supports us in this.”