Politics is generational, and views on political issues often break as sharply based on age demographics as they do by race or even party lines. I was reminded of that fact recently while participating on a political panel for upcoming high school seniors at the 2017 Arkansas Governors’ School.
At our core, we are all products of our environment, and our long-term outlook on issues and culture are heavily influenced by what we ourselves see and experience starting in our childhoods.
The Greatest Generation, born between 1910 and 1924, grew up during the Great Depression and made tremendous sacrifices to protect our way of life as well as the lives of others during World War II. What they experienced is far different than that of their children – the Baby Boomers – who lived through their own set of world-changing events such as the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War, and an even greater contrast from the often-maligned – sometimes unfairly – Generation X.
As someone born on the fringes of Generation X, I’ve never closely identified as a Gen Xer despite having idolized many of its musical and cultural icons. Yet recently I discovered a news article posted on Facebook identifying a new “microgeneration” born between 1977 and 1983 as the Xennial generation. Xennials, as described by researchers, experienced an “analogue childhood” and a “digital adulthood”; they have the cynicism of Generation X, but the optimism and drive of Millennials.
Culturally, there are some tell-tale childhood indicators of Xennials such as growing up making cassette mixed tapes, downloading music on Napster, and having or still having a Hotmail account. (Guilty on all three counts). And to be sure I don’t fall in the Millennial category, the mere fact that I saw this article on Facebook would itself probably disqualify me, given that younger generations have already moved on to other social media platforms that, frankly, I may not even know exist.
While Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may be the economic base of today, embracing the Millennial generation, which according to the Pew Research Center is now the largest living generation in the U.S., offers enormous potential for cities and states to harness the new tech economy, expand entrepreneurship, and improve and unleash impactful community and public service programs. Millennials overall are more diverse and more highly educated than their predecessors, and growth in the Millennial population is already helping to revitalize larger cities such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore, as well as mid-sized cities like Charleston, S.C., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Pearland, Texas.
So how can Arkansas recruit Millennials to come to our state and stay here?
In my view, the answer is two-fold. First, cities and states looking to recruit and retain Millennials must provide economic opportunities in fields where this generation is primed to succeed such as software, tech startups, and academic research, and provide the working lifestyles they are looking for. Cities like Conway, Fayetteville, and Little Rock (among others) have already established a number of ventures to harness tech growth and entrepreneurship, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s priority of expanding computer science and coding courses in every Arkansas high school will undoubtedly reinforce the state’s commitment to, and grow its talent pool for, a larger and more impactful knowledge-based economy.
Secondly, cities working to woo Millennials should strive to create a living environment that meets Millennial lifestyle interests, which are generally centered around quality of life factors such as vibrant downtown areas where they can live, work and play.
The catch is that it must be affordable. Millennials aren’t big spenders and often lack savings – two factors affecting lower Millennial homeownership rates. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in three Millennials rely on their parents’ financial help. With Arkansas’ cost of living being among the lowest in the nation, we may have an advantage in that regard. Other community factors like schools and educational options matter too, though somewhat less so given the lower rates of marriage and child rearing compared to previous generations.
When it comes to Millennials, in many regards we’re on the right path. Yet while attracting and retaining Millennials may be the focus of today, based on the concerns expressed by the group of young, talented post-Millennial students I interacted with at the Arkansas Governor’s School, we have even more work to do on the next generation.
By a show of hands, a clear majority of students polled indicated they would be leaving Arkansas to pursue their college careers, with a steady stream of students expressing why they had no intentions of coming back, with lack of economic and academic opportunity and cultural diversity being the chief complaints.
It was eye-opening to me to discover that while Arkansas may be positioning itself successfully to respond to the Millennial generation, we may be unprepared to meet the wants and needs of the group that comes after them. And if we aren’t thoughtful about how to address it, we may lose the momentum that is just starting to take hold.
So instead of making assumptions about what this post-Millennial group is looking for, what they value, and how they can contribute to our culture, our economy, and our communities, maybe we should do ourselves a favor and ask them. While we might not agree with all their answers, based on what I’ve seen so far, we might just learn something.
Editor’s note: Robert Coon is a partner with Impact Management Group, a government relations and communications firm. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.