Fans of the Better Block guys will be familiar with the term 8-80, which is sometimes used to measure the health of street life. It means there are people on the streets ranging from ages 8-80 and implies that a community is safe, accessible, and interesting enough for even the most vulnerable citizens to be out enjoying themselves.

But beyond age range, what about age distribution? What happens if your city is dominated culturally, politically, and economically by one age group? In my neck of the woods, the public is considerably stressed out about that age group being seniors.

I started to ponder another possibility while on the road in Minneapolis, Sandpoint (Idaho), and San Francisco.

Open Streets in Minneapolis was a display of strollers, baby bike seats, and tricycles as far as the eye could see. In fact, that was pretty much all the eye could see - people in their mid-20s to mid-30s with their kids or dogs. In Sandpoint there were far more retirement age folks populating the patios and sidewalks, but then it was as if the age dropped straight to 25-35. In San Francisco, nearly everyone seemed young and beautiful.

Open Streets Minneapolis. Photo by Gracen Johnson.

Open Streets Minneapolis. Photo by Gracen Johnson.

Maybe I was just visiting events or areas that trended young. But you could see how the streets were changing with the demographics. The newest businesses on each block were familiar. You know the drill: gastropubs, microbreweries, food trucks, retro barber shops, deluxe donuts, brunch, bike stores, and of course mucho coffee. You’d expect it all in San Fran, but I didn’t think I’d find it to such a degree in Minneapolis or Sandpoint.

To be honest, I'm still unsure what to make of the transformation since *I'm* a young person. This is kind of my tribe, but it can be hard to say when neighbourhood change starts and stops being improvement. 

But many observers and analysts are highly optimistic about reign of young college grads in a growing number of cities. 

Young Grads, the Next Shiny Object

I moved to Fredericton as one small story in what I saw as larger counter-narrative. Most of my young grad friends were moving to the biggest cities they could - the NYC-San Fran-DC bunch and their Canadian and European equivalents. For many reasons, I decided to move against that grain to a small city that, on paper, would seem a poor choice.

It turned out to be a great choice for me and a journey in which I am not alone. Even in places that are losing population overall, core neighbourhoods are gaining young college grads.

“Urban cores attracted increased numbers of young adults even in metropolitan areas that were losing population and hemorrhaging talented young workers. Metropolitan Buffalo, Cleveland, New Orleans and Pittsburgh, all of which experienced population declines over the past decade, saw an increase in the number of young adults with a college degree in their close-in neighborhoods. (In these cases, the numerical increases were from small bases, but show that the urban core is attractive even in these economically troubled regions).” - -

The Times wrote about the report quoted above on Monday, explaining that “Where Young College Graduates Are Choosing to Live” may just forecast which cities become the next big thing.

“The economic effects reach beyond the work the young people do, according to Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The New Geography of Jobs.” For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, he found, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city, such as for waiters, carpenters, doctors, architects and teachers.

“It’s a type of growth that feeds on itself — the more young workers you have, the more companies are interested in locating their operations in that area and the more young people are going to move there,” he said.”

All of this sounds good, right? Suspiciously good. Young people temporarily solve a bunch of our problems. In fact, when I’m working with my young colleagues in Fredericton, it’s easy to forget that this place has major structural challenges that will not be solved by the next shiny object.

Around the world, college-educated young people have become a shiny object. Just like fishing for big employers with incentives, cities are now under pressure to attract young people. (Is the Creative Class already passé? Have we grown weary of searching for “innovators” and entrepreneurs and now we’ll just settle for anyone under 40?) This is a zero sum game though - if San Fran has more than its share of young adults, someone is coming up short.

It’s easy to get caught up in the race to the youngest, wherein the best-positioned cities are those with the freshest faces. I understand the appeal of it. After all, these are my friends everyone is courting and I want them in my city too. But once again, I think we’re putting the cart before the horse.

You can do all the “attracting” you want as a city (cue the slideshow of failed branding campaigns), and I’m not convinced it’ll do much good. I write about this a lot but it just keeps coming up so I’ll emphasize it again. If you don’t have something charming, or compelling, or loveable to begin with, a flashy video and bike-share program is not going to change that in a few short years. 

But if people do find a place loveable (or even just nice) they’ll do the attracting for you, and it snowballs as word of mouth does. In fact, I’m probably one of Fredericton’s top youth recruiters just being honest and open about my move - hey, I’m young, I moved here, it’s nice, I’ve made great friends, it’s cheap, I actually really like it.

We need to focus more on giving the people who live in our cities nice things to say about the place before Attract Young People turns into the next failed whopper of an economic development strategy.

We may look back and find that the youngest cities were most capable of weathering the storm, but at best I’d argue us kids are an indicator species, not Noah’s Ark.