When people are asked to describe Northwest Arkansas, one word often comes up: vibrant.
What does it mean to be vibrant? A casual perusal of dictionary definitions would indicate that we are energetic, full of enthusiasm and exciting. The real subtext behind all of these definitions of vibrancy is youth and youngness. Northwest Arkansas is ridiculously young — like really, really young.
We don’t appreciate enough that fully half — yes half — of the 525,000 plus population of Northwest Arkansas is under the age of 34. And no, it isn’t only because of the universities and colleges in the region, either. In fact, the biggest population cohort in Northwest Arkansas is the 25-34 year olds, followed by the 35-44 year olds.
If Northwest Arkansas were a TV show, we would be a ratings juggernaut and a coveted spot for advertising because of our share of what is considered the prime marketing demographic. With a pipeline of residents that young, Northwest Arkansas’ labor force and economy are primed to grow and compete into the future.
Some of this demographic dividend is simply good fortune, but a lot of credit should go to community leaders who have made thoughtful and intentional investments in making Northwest Arkansas an attractive destination for job-seeking millennials.
It has become passé to talk about how millennials are different from other generations in their preference for experiences as opposed to things. Nonetheless, a 2017 survey sponsored by Eventbrite shows that nearly nine in 10 millennials (89%) attended or participated in live experiences such as parties, concerts, festivals, performing arts, races, marches, demonstrations and other events. Even as the millennials grow older, 75% of them prefer to spend their money on buying experiences instead of things.
Here in Northwest Arkansas, thanks to our community’s investments, there is no shortage of experiences for millennials. There are ArtInfusion parties at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, young professionals events and the 10×10 series at the Walton Arts Center, steep subscriber discounts at TheatreSquared, a plethora of acclaimed live music events at the Walmart AMP and George’s Majestic Lounge, festivals like the Fayetteville Roots Festival, more craft breweries and brew pubs than one can count on both hands, restaurants serving innovative and traditional cuisines, hiking and mountain biking trails, whitewater parks, and so much more.
Conveniently, most of these are also tailor-made for another millennial must have: documenting their experiences, (a.k.a. taking selfies, although this remains an issue that needs to be resolved for live theatre and some performing arts where taking a selfie during a performance is a major faux-pas).
A region that is rich in millennials does come with some challenges, though. Millennial college graduates accumulate a lot of student loan debt (coincidentally, they are also going to be the most educated generation ever). The size and burden of these debts do inhibit household formation, whether it be purchasing a place of residence or a vehicle.
It is hard to contemplate buying a Prius when the student loan repayment costs as much as a Prius car payment. Combine this with a preference to buy experiences over things, and millennials present significant challenges to all the commercial real estate currently devoted to the selling of things.
Northwest Arkansas, however, routinely features at the top of lists of places with a low cost of living, so even some of those hefty student loan payments may be more affordable here. Millennials’ preference to live close to experience-rich amenities in downtown cores of cities will require cities across the region to continue rethinking zoning and building codes, as many residential properties are currently built around the old suburban model. The region also needs to continue and step up investments in alternative modes of transit.
Community leaders in Northwest Arkansas have shown remarkable prescience in making changes and investments in the region that brought us our current successes. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to maintain our investments and continue to work on some of these challenges. Unlike before, there are millennial leaders ready and able to join in addressing the challenges.
After all, this generation is more civic-minded and likes to be in the room where it happens.
Editor’s note: Mervin Jebaraj is the interim director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.