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Michigan’s detours into social issues won’t help attract young talent

KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER: Millennials appreciate Michigan’s place-making efforts, writers Natalie Burg, but the state won’t have much success selling itself to young talent with outdated attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage. (courtesy photo)

KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER: Millennials appreciate Michigan’s place-making efforts, writers Natalie Burg, but the state won’t have much success selling itself to young talent with outdated attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage. (courtesy photo)

I was pretty proud of myself upon landing my first grownup-person job several years ago. It came with such new-to-me perks as a salary, health insurance and this mind-boggling thing where you don’t work on holidays, but still get paid like you were there. There were business cards, too. They had my name on them.

Because I was so impressed with myself and these treasures, I was pretty bummed out when one of my favorite new co-workers pulled me aside to offer his condolences on my rotten deal.


Far from agreeing that I’d just won the employment lottery, my friend couldn’t believe I was being denied the decency of a pension, and instead had to settle for a 401(k).

Ha! OK. I see. This guy in his 50s, who was completely up-to-date on urban planning and economic development, totally misunderstood what someone my age wanted in benefits. That made sense; at that time, I was the youngest person employed by the city by about four presidential terms. Most of the staffers were Reagan-era hires.

To clarify, quickly: No one born in the 1980s or since wants a pension. We don’t want to mess with the pressure of working at one place long enough to earn one.

What we do want is to work in an interesting city with cool things to do, beautiful neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown. But you know that. That is, if you have eyes, ears or follow the news, you’ve heard that Michigan is super obsessed with place-making.

We’ve learned that college grads gravitate toward great places to live and then find jobs there, and we are determined to make all 276 cities and 257 villages in the state fit that bill.

I can’t say how much Michigan has been invested in place-making over the last few years. That’s not because I don’t know where to look up such information; it’s because there are too many numbers to look up. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority is into place-making; so is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The Michigan Municipal League totally digs it, and local governments all over the state are investing in it. Even private companies and independent nonprofits have been sinking time and money into the concept.

But we also need to do more. Like my city employee friend who knew all about how to plan a city where I’d want to live, but not how I’d like to be compensated as an employee, I feel like our rush to attract young talent through place-making addresses only half of the equation.

Young, educated adults do want to live in exciting cities, but we also want to spend less on our health care than we do on our mortgages. Millennials overwhelmingly support universal health care, and yet, here in Michigan, we’re watching legislators pushing back against the Affordable Care Act. A significant majority of us are pro-choice, and yet women’s access to health care has been under threat at several points over the last year.

Dave Agema

Dave Agema

And coming from a generation that strongly supports LGBT equality, I know I wasn’t the only Millennial Michigander horrified by GOP National Committeeman Dave Agema’s boneheaded remarks about gay people, which drew widespread attention.

These are political opinions, but they are also demographic facts, and we really can’t choose to ignore them. Students at MIT may be seeing Pure Michigan commercials, but they’re also watching when Jon Stewart airs a clip of former Rep. Lisa Brown being banned from the House floor for saying “vagina.” The message that women in our state can be silenced for standing up for their own rights undoes the benefit of a dozen community place-making projects.

Lisa Brown

Lisa Brown

So let’s keep going with the great work being done in Michigan in the place-making arena. I truly believe it is making an impact and our state is becoming an even richer, lovelier place. Millennials do like beautiful, active cities, but when we think of our future, we’re not thinking about pensions or concerts in the park. We’re thinking of living in a place where we have access to affordable health care and everyone enjoys equal rights.

If retaining young talent is truly so important to us, perhaps we should keep in mind, when determining which high-profile social battles to fight, which ones could work against the economic development efforts in which we’ve invested so well.

Natalie Burg has lived in six Michigan cities, but most recently put down stakes in Ann Arbor. Her book, “Swedish Lessons: A memoir of sects, love and indentured servitude” was released last year. She’s a little obsessed with trying new veggie- or fish-based twists on Eggs Benedict. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

14 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Dot Potter Barnett

    If Natalie is truly characteristic of her generation, then there is hope for Michigan’s future. But I have to ask, if her generation supports LGBT, universal health care and are pro-choice, do they also vote? We certainly need their votes in the next election to change the conservative mentality currently ensconced in our Michigan Government.

    1. Mary Jo Durivage

      Agree whole heartedly. We have a few “enlightened” legislators but there is only so much they can do. Most of the Legislature and evidently the governor just “don’t get it”.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. James Foster

    This was a very well written article.

  3. Sherri

    When Natalie attempts to retire with her underfunded 401K she may think differently. What if the market crashes at your retirement and you lose 50% of it ? Oh well??? This is America’s next economic crisis (along with the student debt bubble of course).

  4. TeacherPatti

    As someone born in the 70s, I have to say that I always wanted a pension. I saw how it made my parents’ lives much easier in that they never had to worry about saving extra money for retirement. I see now how awesome my dad’s retirement is, including spending half the year in FL and traveling extensively. Since I’m a teacher, I am in the teacher pension system (until Snyder and his boys figure out a way to destroy that too) and it doesn’t force you to stay at a district for 25+ years…you can move around the state, so long as you stay in a public school. It’s the best of both worlds!

  5. Jeffrey L Salisbury

    Oh to be young and naive.

    1. Tim Voskuil

      Care to elaborate on the “oh to be young and naive” comment? I find nothing naive or contrary to my own opinions, nor none of my friends, many of whom are fiscally conservative and socially progressive.

  6. Douglas Stites

    As some one in my mid sixties I say big thumbs up to the young because they are young , optimistic and our future…..ignore the pessimists

  7. Mary

    Fast forward 40 years and I hope you are not living in a used recreational vehicle and eating ramen, Natalie.

    1. Troll Hater

      I am sure Natalie makes more money as a successful author than you make being a troll on the internet Mary.

  8. Emily White

    Thank you, Natalie! Brilliant and well written. I also think the “placemaking” concept needs more glue to stick all of those organizations together and creating coordinated actions.

  9. Gina Fournier

    I liked your article and appreciate your perspective. Good luck! I am 50 but feel the same way about pensions. Check out my youtube channel and facebook diary about being witch hunted at Oakland Community College. Thankfully, I chose the 403b in 2005 when I was hired because in 2013, when I was forced to quit, I was able to start living as I am now on my retirement. Otherwise, I would be homeless.

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