For Millennials, next city elections spur hope — and terror

Will they stay or will they go?

Nearly eight years ago, Michael Nutter became mayor of Philadelphia in part by attracting the enthusiasm of the Millennials.

These young people had begun flocking to the city for its eds/meds jobs, cheap housing, cultural riches and hipster scene.

Eight years later, this Millennial cohort has grown. It’s a prime reason that, in the last Census, Philadelphia was one of few older cities that actually gained population.

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But this group has also grown disillusioned with Nutter in particular, and city politics in general. This arc of disenchantment eerily parallels how that hopey-changey thing has gone sour for Barack Obama.

The cascading agonies of the city school system terrify this cohort. It had all been going so well between Philly and them: Move here, sample the city’s gritty charm, meet a partner, find a favorite craft beer, lobby for a bike lane, renovate a rowhouse.  By now, they’re inclined to dig in, commit, make a stand.

But not if the schools keep burning down. Not if the city’s political culture continues to seem hopelessly corrupt and clueless.

So, for this contingent, this coming city election is, in a word, huge.

Alas, the Millennials are not inspired by the lineup of usual suspects running for mayor. At all.

Without a standard bearer to rally around, they’re not adept at the hard work of political change. Philly politics looks to them a closed, airless system that shuts them out; voting begins to seem like a mug’s game. They feel far more comfortable expressing civic commitment through service projects, hackathons, nonprofits that work on small, tangible goals.

Once the kids they’ve started birthing reach school age, they’ll start hopping on the same Narberth shuttle out of town that my generation rode back in the 80s.

Every Philly city election is about two things: the needs of people who have no choice but to live in Philly, and the wants of people who have options. The political culture is far more comfortable speaking about, and to, the group that’s forced to stay – even if only to lie to them. In a high-poverty city, it’s seen as bad form to worry about the desires and grievances of the bike-riding, Uber-using latte drinkers.

But the city urgently needs its Millennials. Why? Because the innovation and wealth they can help spawn are also the best path to creating opportunity and decent care for the city’s needy.

The city’s old guard simply must get way better at listening to, learning from, celebrating, nurturing and empowering its millennial cohort. The Millennials, in turn, might want to shed some naivete and gird for the stubborn, patient work of making real change.

Right now, the Leadership Philadelphia organization is trying to do something about the scary prospect of the flight of the Millennials.  As part of it’s decade-old Connector project, it’s trying via community survey to identify Philadelphia’s “Keepers,”  the bright and effective city residents between the ages of 25 and 35 whom the city’s establishment should take steps to retain.  Here’s more information on that program.

Also, the fine organization Young Involved Philadephia will hold its annual State of Young Philadelphia series of events from Nov. 4 to Nov. 22.  If you want to see who the Millennials are and what they bring to the city, check some of these events out.

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