Why Cities And Businesses Fail To Attract Millennials And What They Can Do To Fix It

by Aaron Kaufman

I must admit, I have never considered LinkedIn to be a particularly valuable social media platform.

To me, it always seemed like Facebook’s ugly, uninteresting stepbrother; an outlet for older professionals to stroke their egos by accumulating “colleagues” and halfhearted endorsements of their skill sets for purposes of self-aggrandizement.

Given my distaste for the site, I only begrudgingly accept invitations to connect with complete strangers, assuming that doing so only serves to placate their narcissism.

Last week, when I received such an invitation from a decorated professional who works at the intersection of business and government in St. Louis, I presumed that it was simply another empty connection predicated on vanity.

Boy, was I wrong.

Moments after accepting the connection, he sent me the following message:

“I was curious to get your thoughts on why some many non-profit organizations have "Young Professionals" subgroups as a means of attracting younger members, but never fully integrate into the larger core? Is this because young professionals like to be among themselves, or [is it that] the larger, older, established members don't know what to do with them?”

“The [Kansas City Star] had an article about how Kansas City is trying to attract younger people to move to the city. What do you think is the biggest reason so many [cities] fail? Do they try to create something that is not ‘organic’ or do they not seriously take into consideration the needs and wants of Gen-Y?”

His email caught me completely off-guard. For so long, I have responded to society’s collective treatment of my generation with little more than indignation. It always felt like it was “us vs. them.”

For the first time, I realized that this is perhaps the biggest obstacle preventing us from tackling the serious social and economic problems that encumber youth in America.

Never before had I truly considered that there are those who are genuinely committed to working collaboratively with Millennials to identify viable solutions to these issues; who understand that if we team up to address these dilemmas, all of society stands to benefit in the end.

In truth, I am just as guilty as my elders of perpetuating the generational divides that inhibit real progress on these fronts.

I had to recalibrate my approach. I needed to allow myself to be more open to participating in a real, productive dialogue. Engaging in a thoughtful dialogue with this stranger seemed a perfect place to begin.

I ruminated for hours on how best to respond, and decided to sleep on it. The next day, I penned my answers. The following is an excerpt from my reply:

I think you’re onto something when you suggest that [young professionals] subgroups are not an effective means of driving youth participation in non-profit organizations. We tend to be drawn to activism, but only when that activism aligns with our interests and produces some tangible personal benefit.

This extends to traditional employment as well. A study by the iOpener Institute in Oxford, England, last February analyzed responses from more than 18,000 Millennial professionals and found that more than any other demographic, Gen-Y values personal fulfillment over salary, benefits and job security.

The study concluded that groups and managers hoping to recruit, retain and develop young talent should consider establishing an environment that fosters “feelings of engagement, empowerment, purpose and future development.”

What’s important to consider here is that we are the first generation to prioritize our professional needs in this way.

Because this attitude that we collectively embrace bucks longstanding professional philosophies and primacies, I believe that individuals in positions of authority (who generally hail from an older generation) fail to understand or appreciate the need to emphasize the ways that their organizations can nurture that sense of fulfillment in their younger employees/prospective members.

Ultimately, that fulfillment comes from feeling like we are actually the catalyst of achievement, not just one of many worker bees who contribute some small piece to the broader effort. When non-profit organizations and political organizations place us in subgroups, we are left with the impression that are somehow less important than the general body.

Ironically, these groups are generally created to make us feel valued and important, but in truth, they largely leave us feeling more isolated. This is because the same people who are forcing us into these categories are the same people who [we feel] have predominantly exhibited disparaging attitudes towards our generation for years.

Even though they now recognize our value, years of being called the dumbestlaziestmost entitlednarcissisticcocky and coddled generation in history took their toll.

Those attitudes, when considered along with a national political agenda that has paid little attention to remedying serious issues that our generation faces (rising cost of education, fewer employment opportunities, social security insolvency, etc.), leave us wary to simply trust that older authority figures really have our best interests in mind.

A Pew Research study published in March found that “only 19 percent of Millennials say that most people can be trusted, compared to 31 percent of people in Generation X and 40 percent of Baby Boomers who feel the same way.”

What’s interesting to consider here is that the other demographics that experience similar levels of distrust are minorities and low-income adults. Sociologists have claimed that populations who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged, for one reason or another, view blind faith as a perilous venture.

From this, we can derive that Millennials are experiencing similar feelings of disenfranchisement from general society that was once exclusively felt by groups that have historically been discriminated against.

In other words, we believe that we’re somehow outside of the mainstream, and therefore, society only utilizes us when it serves its interests. I’ll take this moment to harken back to my first point. We want personal fulfillment, plain and simple.

Turning to Kansas City’s struggles to attract Millennials:

I believe that any effort to spur a mass migration of young professionals to the city requires an “organic strategy,” as you put it. Where so many organizations and political movements fail is when they try to convince us that we should automatically appreciate something or be motivated to act because they believe it aligns with our interests. These efforts generally come off feeling forced or contrived, and we remain unmoved.

In the media, we’ve seen this scenario play out over and over as outlets try to attract the much coveted youth demographic for advertisers. I won’t go into great depth here, but I wrote an article about why those efforts repeatedly fail last month – you can read it here.

Local, state and national government actors should seek to recruit Millennial thought leaders to not only be included in the decision-making process when it comes to policies and practices that specifically pertain to/affect our generation, but should allow us to lead process.

Ultimately, regardless of whether or not it is true, it is our belief that only we can best know what we need and what we want. If we’re not part of that process from the outset, we’ll be reluctant to support the effort once it’s underway.

Immediately after hitting send on the email, I felt uplifted. I realized that too often, we focus on what we’re doing wrong rather than exploring what we can be doing right.

To do that, we must allow ourselves to be open to considering fresh perspectives. When our ideologies, opinions and attitudes become too entrenched, we’re likely to miss opportunities to better ourselves. We prevent ourselves from being a force for positive change.

I shunned LinkedIn because I believed it offered little personal benefit. In doing so, I almost missed an opportunity to connect with someone who would help restore my faith in society. A person who would allow me to believe once more that we are capable of achieving anything so long as we are willing to work together.

By simply approaching me and asking for my perspective, he made me realize that the answer to his questions were in the questions themselves.

The most important thing that a city or company do when trying to attract Millennials is simple: talk to them, not at them.

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