Where the Kids Are Heading

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3056953388_4512c89d0a.jpgThe Wall Street Journal asked six experts to come up with lists of the "next youth magnet cities." I was one of them. The top spot was a tie - D.C. and Seattle, followed by NYC, Portland (OR), Austin, San Jose, Denver, Raleigh-Durham, Dallas, Chicago, and Boston. You can see the list and read the full story here.

Below is what I sent to the Journal.

My Rankings
These are based on my own rankings of the best places for young, professional singles, aged 20-29 in Who's Your City?, as well as other rankings and surveys and my reading of current trends. The data are from Kevin Stolarick, additional analysis by Charlotta Mellander, and research assistance by Patrick Adler, my colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute.

1) New York City
The country's largest city was the top destination for recent graduates according to the career-cast survey noted below. The city's size affords migrants an economic diversity that simply cannot exist in smaller places. It's the place to be if you're in finance, fashion, entertainment, publishing, or even indie music. Also unparalleled is the city's mythic status, as a place to test one's mettle against the best and the brightest. One of the top five on my own rankings of the best places for young, single, 20-29-year-olds.

2) Washington, D.C
The public sector is ascendant and, in the eyes of many, Barack Obama is America's coolest boss. These factors will only bolster Washington, D.C., a city that is already a hotbed of young talent. 45.9 percent of Washington, D.C.'s workforce has a bachelor's degree or more, and young people enjoy positions of influence on congressional staffs and at think tanks. And it is a center for media, journalism, and blogging as well as high-tech. D.C. is the top city in my own rankings of best places for young singles aged 20-29. If I was 23 or 24 again, it's where I'd head.

3) San Francisco/ Silicon Valley
Still the world's high-tech hot spot. One of the top five on my own rankings. Great quality of life, a large stock of smart, driven young people, and fantastic restaurants and outdoor activities.

4) Chicago
If management or industry is your thing, Chicago is the place to be. It's the talent magnet for the midwest and beyond, drawing driven young people by the droves. It has great amenities, great nightlife, a spectacular waterfront, great restaurants, and it's affordable.

5) Boulder/ Denver
Yes, it's smaller than the others, but it packs a real punch. Boulder ranked No. 1 among all U.S. destinations on my own rankings of the best places for young singles 20-29. Now add in Denver and it has the size and scale to be a great place for young professionals. It has thriving, high-tech industries about the best outdoor recreation - from skiing to cycling - to be had anywhere.

6) L.A.
If you want a career in film, entertainment, fashion, or music, it's the place to be. Sure, it's crowded, pricey, and the traffic is horrible, but it has abundant sunshine, great temperatures, unbelievable beaches, and fantastic restaurants.

7) Boston
It's always been a great "stay-over" town for the thousands of regional college grads. This year, it surpassed NYC as the No. 1 destination for Harvard grads. It's the world center for management consulting with strong finance and high-tech industries. Not to mention a great place to stick around, work for awhile, and go back to grad school.

8) Seattle
A high-tech and lifestyle mecca in its own right with Amazon, Microsoft, and more. It's also a center for cutting-edge retail with Starbucks, Costco, and REI. Quality of place by the boatloads.

9) Austin
What can you say about a place whose motto is "Keep Austin Weird"? It remains a high-tech player, with great quality of life that's affordable. It's the indie music capital of the universe with SXSW and Austin City Limits and a great array of local venues. Plus, with residents like Lance Armstrong, it's a cyclist and outdoor enthusiast's paradise.

10) Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
Another great high-tech, university, smart city, which boasts a mild climate, highly educated population, great outdoor activities, and a great music scene.

Runners-Up/Honorable Mention:

  • Madison, Wisconsin, and Ann Arbor, Michigan - Both great stay-over college towns that rank very high on my own rankings. College towns in general perform well in this demographic; they've coped reasonably well with the recession and are good places to stay or head, at least for a while
  • Atlanta and Minneapolis: Regional talent magnets for the southeast and Great Lakes/Plains respectively.
  • Outside the U.S.: London, Toronto, Shanghai, Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane.

Key factors affecting location of young, college-educated singles
Even with signs that the worst of the Great Recession is over, young people are understandably worried about their economic future. This past May, the Wall Street Journal reported that some of the past decade's "youth magnet" locations are losing their appeal as economic opportunities whither in cities like Phoenix, Seattle, Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Las Vegas, and others which led the nation in attracting young college grads from 2005 to 2007. So where are young, educated, single people heading?

A recent survey lists the best places for college grads to launch their careers. New York City topped the list - despite the financial crisis - with eight in 10 survey respondents listing it as one of their top destinations. Second-place Washington, D.C. was named by 63 percent. Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and San Diego round out the top 10. And, remember, this is a list of the places that are best to find a job, not to have fun, go to great restaurants or clubs, make friends, or get lots of dates. 

The list is heavy on big cities, and it's remarkably similar to a comprehensive list my research team and I developed for my book Who's Your City? of the best places for college-educated 20- to 29-year-olds. It also put big cities such as San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York on top. (D.C. jumped to the top of the list when we factored affordability and cost into the mix.) College towns also did well, with Madison, WI, topping the list for medium-size regions, and Boulder, CO, taking first place for small regions. Raleigh, N.C.; Ann Arbor, MI; and New Haven, CT also score well. To get at the factors that attract and keep Gen Y in certain places, my colleague Charlotta Mellander and I analyzed the results of a Gallup survey of some 28,000 Americans.

First off, young, educated people are considerably less attached to where they live and considerably more mobile than other Americans. About a quarter (26.5 percent) of them said they were extremely satisfied with the place they currently live, compared with nearly half (47.4 percent) of all Americans. Twenty-somethings are, on average, three or four times more likely to move than 40- or 50-somethings.

Jobs are clearly important. Gen Y members ranked the availability of jobs second when asked what would keep them in their current location and fourth in terms of their overall satisfaction with their community. But it's more than just a job. Young people today are faced with dwindling corporate commitment; job tenure has grown far shorter and people switch jobs with much greater frequency. That means picking a location which not only offers a great job but a thick labor market with abundant career opportunity, as a hedge against economic uncertainty and the risk of layoff.

But the highest-ranked factor is the ability to meet people and make friends. Young, educated people intuitively understand what economic sociologists have documented: Vibrant social networks are key to landing jobs, moving forward in your career, and one's broader personal happiness. They not only desire a thick labor market but what I have come to call a thick mating market where they can meet new people, go out on dates, and eventually find a life partner. What do you think is more important to happiness: Finding a great job or finding the right life partner?

Where older Americans see high-quality schools and safe streets as key, Gen Y understandably ranks the availability of outstanding colleges and universities higher. Many are likely to go back to graduate school and having great programs nearby is a big plus. When it comes to their overall community satisfaction, access to open space, being in an aesthetically beautiful city, and having access to vibrant nightlife are also quite important. Affordable housing, air, and water quality, and availability of religious institutions matter too but slightly less so.

My own assessment is that finding the right place to live is among the three most important decisions of your life. Moving is an expensive and time-consuming proposition; mistakes can be costly to fix or undo.

(Photo: Flickr/fergusonphotography)

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Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. See his most recent writing at The Atlantic Cities. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He is founder of the Creative Class Group.

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