Before we start writing Fayette County’s obituary, let’s make a deliberate attempt to scrutinize our current position and how we measure in the broader context of the Atlanta region.
Because of the competition for economic development prospects, metropolitan areas all over the nation are always looking for an edge, and anxiety often drives the movements of state and local governments fearful of losing.
Currently, there is an obsession over Millennials, what researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss defined as the young adults “born in 1982 and approximately the 20 years thereafter.” Personally, I have been fascinated how pundits, many in their 60s, can tell us exactly what young adults in their 20s want.
No one poured more gasoline on the fire than 58-year old Richard Florida in his 2002 book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” and other works which focused on urban renewal and talent migration.
Florida’s theory is metro areas that attract high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians, gay men and a fuzzy grouping referred to as “high bohemians” will achieve a higher level of economic development.
Mr. Florida has made a significant business off of consulting with communities on how they can improve their environments to attract the creative class and have a bright future. The real estate profession and urban government leaders love what Florida is selling.
Unfortunately, there are no specific studies or data sets that prove that anything Mr. Florida is saying is true. There are a lot of op-eds from people, many eligible for AARP membership, that tell us what these young Millennials want and how our future success is dependent upon them.
When pressed, Mr. Florida points to a study by Todd Gabe. Gabe’s studies look at a cross-section of counties at a single point in time. So, in reality, no one has determined whether the Millennials merely migrate to where the best potential job growth exists or jobs go to the areas with the Millennials.
Economist and author Enrico Moretti in his book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” challenges Florida, saying that the creative class theory has it backwards. Moretti points to Berlin as a perfect example of a very “cool” place, attracting creative types for years as one of the world’s most bohemian cities, yet their economy is in the toilet (13 percent unemployment, 40 percent unemployment among artists).
University of British Columbia Geography Professor Jamie Peck, who was living in Madison, Wisconsin (one of Florida’s creative city examples) when Florida’s 2002 book was published, says the creative class theory is bunk.
Peck says Madison was succeeding because of “public sector spending through the university [of Wisconsin], not the dynamic Florida was describing,” referring to Florida’s work as “self-indulgent forms of amateur microsociology and crass celebrations of hipster embourgeoisement.”
Sako Musterd’s four-year, $6 million, 2011 study of 13 cities across Europe entitled “Accommodating Creative Knowledge” found that Florida’s theory of creative workers migrating to places that are tolerant, open and diverse was not happening. According to Musterd, “They move to places where they can find jobs.”
Stefan Kratke’s 2010 German study of Florida’s theory wrote “that Florida’s conception does not match the state of findings of regional innovation research and that his way of relating talent and technology might be regarded as a remarkable exercise in simplification.”
A 2009 study by Michele Hoyman and Chris Faricy using Florida’s data from 1990 to 2004 attempted to find a link between creative class workers and economic growth. They found no such correlation. According to Faricy, “The measurement of the creative class that Florida uses in his book does not correlate with any known measure of economic growth and development.”
One of my favorite oft-cited examples, Portland, Oregon, certainly has an abundance of Millennials and they are floundering. They have a large collection of unemployed and underemployed Millennials. In 2012, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said we needed to emulate Portland and Atlanta’s faltering street car was a step in that direction.
The anxiety of having to beat the competing regions caused many to grab desperately at whatever edge they could find. It was easy to look at San Francisco and Boston and say high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men must be the answer, but those areas were long leaders in the technological revolution, leaders in private and university research and had high quantities of college graduates.
A better way to account for what drives economic growth is Human Capital Theory which states it’s the number of college educated people in the area that propels economic growth. This measure is far superior to creative class theory in determining success.
Land and transportation planning are even more difficult around the Millennials. The new buzz-phrase is “creative place making.”
The Great Recession had more to do with the attitudes and actions of Millennials than a newly holistic approach to living that departs from previous generations.
“Millennials don’t want to drive or own a car.” Government leaders, transit officials and real estate developers across the country are certain that such statements are true. This belief is propelling governments to multi-billion dollar decisions on mass transit projects and high density housing permits near urban transit stations. However, it now looks as though the high levels of unemployment and underemployment with young adults was the reason for not making car purchases.
Currently, the headline reads, “Millennials buying cars in big numbers,” (AJC, March 10, 2016). With more employment security comes more spending on automobiles, 4 million in 2015, and Millennials now account for nearly 30 percent of the car market. In California, the nation’s largest car market, Millennials outpaced Baby Boomers in purchases.
Larger numbers of Millennials are now moving to the suburbs. The delays associated with getting married and having children are now beginning to ease. The young adults who watched the housing market collapse and saw the pain of being underwater on a mortgage are now learning that the economy can recover.
Fayette County rates well in terms of human capital. Peachtree City has one of the tightest housing markets in the state. Our quality of life has remained high for a long time.
Our target for the future should be young married couples, especially young families. Very few places can touch us in this category.
We have got to have leadership who understands how to protect our community assets and promote positive growth strategies that will not negatively impact our quality of life. We have some difficulties in this area.
Steve Brown, Commissioner
Fayette County Board of Commissioners
Peachtree City, Ga.