Over the past several years, Philadelphia has been fortunate to experience a strong and remarkable boom in its young-adult population. But this growth appears as fragile as it is promising. The challenge is figuring out how to retain these young people — and the energy, skills, and economic potential they bring to the city.
Data from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ new report, Millennials in Philadelphia: A Promising but Fragile Boom, tell the story. [Read the report below.] From 2006 to 2012, as the young-adult populations grew in cities across the country, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds in Philadelphia rose by roughly 100,000 people. About two-thirds of all new arrivals in Philadelphia each year are young adults.
In Center City and a few other areas, these members of the vast millennial generation now represent well over 40 percent of the population. In the neighborhoods surrounding Center City, they represent more than 30 percent. Talk to millennial Philadelphians, and the reasons behind their desire to live in the city quickly emerge. They like the excitement, convenience, and variety of experiences that city life provides, as well as the diversity of people, job opportunities, and lifestyles.
And the city has every reason to like them, too. Millennials populate restaurants, bars, and sidewalks day and night; they bring energy and new ideas. They pay taxes but make relatively few demands on city services. They are coveted by employers for their ambition, their flexibility, and their willingness to work for modest wages.
To be sure, Philadelphia’s young-adult numbers, as a share of the overall population, do not rival those in millennial havens such as Boston, Washington, Seattle, and Austin, TX. But the city has come a long way in a short time.
The question is what happens next.
In Philadelphia and other metropolitan areas, many young adults move to the suburbs when their first child reaches school age. But if today’s young adults stay a few years longer—or decide not to leave at all—city leaders will consider this an important success for Philadelphia.
Persuading millennials to stay will not be easy, but several trends work in the city’s favor. Today’s young adults tend to have children later in life than did generations past, delaying the moment of decision for many. And as a generation, experts say, millennials have a stronger affinity for urban life than did their predecessors, making them more reluctant to leave.
However, only half of young-adult Philadelphians surveyed in a Pew poll said they expect to be living in the city five to 10 years from now. Of those who anticipate living elsewhere, the highest percentage cited career considerations as the main reason, followed by education and child rearing. In a focus group convened for the report, a 24-year-old man said of his career prospects: “Unless you’re going to be a lawyer or accountant or something like that, there’s not much here for you.”
Perhaps more troubling is that only 36 percent of millennials said they would recommend Philadelphia to a friend as a good place to raise a child, while 56 percent said they would not. Negative perceptions about the School District of Philadelphia contribute to that view.
These results suggest that the millennials’ affection for Philadelphia is conditional and that a lot is at stake for the city in meeting those conditions. This is true even though a new crop of young adults will eventually come along and may find Philadelphia every bit as attractive as millennials do today. The problem is that the next generation is smaller in number. That is why holding on to as many now as possible is so important to Philadelphia’s future.
Larry Eichel is project director of the Philadelphia research initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.