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Landing the young gains importance: How is a city to please 25- to 34-year-olds?

December 18, 2006

College-educated young adults should consider themselves lucky-everybody wants them.

Cities nationwide are bending over backward trying to figure out what hip amenities will attract "the young and the restless." Arts organizations are looking for ways to get them to performances. Even newspapers are getting into the act, launching specialty publications aimed directly at them.

Why so much love? Time's ticking.

Baby boomers are getting older, and someone has to take their place as employees, taxpayers, arts patrons and news readers. And the 25- to 34-year-old demographic fits the bill.

Although young adults have a reputation for being difficult to get involved in the community, some observers believe if a city can hook them before they turn 35, they'll settle down there.

Indianapolis is among the communities courting the up-and-coming generation. Something certainly has to change. From 1990 to 2000, Marion County's 25-34 population declined 13 percent, to 129,650, according to U.S. Census statistics. In the same period, total population increased 7 percent.

That doesn't help a state reeling from the loss of college graduates. Evidence of the so-called brain drain abounds: Indiana lost 2,674 residents with college degrees in 2000 alone.

Some are wondering whether it's time to hit the panic button.

So far, Indianapolis' main weapon has been Indy Hub, a networking group backed by business that's designed to get young adults connected.

The more vibrant, active adults that are plugged into the city's social and volunteer scene, the theory goes, the more vibrant and active the city will be.

But we're far from alone in trying to lure young professionals.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, for example, already is claiming victory in the demographic battle. It released a study recently showing it has increased its 25-34 population more than any other metropolitan area-by a margin of a measly 0.8 percent.

Local lure

Indy Hub started with Anne Shane, vice president of BioCrossroads, Indianapolis' life-sciences initiative.

"Four or five years ago, the issue of talent attraction was on everybody's lips," Shane said. "That's the lifeblood of a talent-based industry."

So Shane spoke informally with Rebecca Ryan, founder of Next Generation Consulting, a Madison, Wis.-based company that helps businesses and communities understand how to attract young people.

Many young professionals choose where they want to live and then find a job, Ryan told Shane. And if they do move to a town for a job, their chances of staying are low unless they make a connection to the community in the first 90 days.

Enter Indy Hub.

Incorporated in 2005, the not-for-profit works to get newly relocated young professionals involved in the community-and help invigorate those who may have always lived here but weren't active.

Organizers plan social events that range from arts outings to salsa dancing to a free showing of "The Polar Express" at the Imax Theater downtown. Some, like the movie, are family-friendly while others have more of a cocktail-hour feel.

"A lot of people I've met through this job said, 'I was this close to leaving, then I found someone who helped me get connected,'" said Executive Director Molly Wilkinson Chavers.

Indy Hub runs on a lean annual budget of about $100,000, but it has financial backing and board members from some heavy hitters in local industry including Eli Lilly and Co., Dow AgroSciences, Duke Realty Corp. and SallieMae.

Time to act

Some of those businesses lined up in part because they've taken a good, hard look at the potential retirees in their ranks and are concerned.

"It's been on my mind for quite some time now," said Linda Fogle, work-force planning and diversity leader for Dow Agro-Sciences. "We are definitely weighted more towards the boomers."

Fogle said Dow AgroSciences and others are learning that, to appeal to young professionals, companies need to tailor their messages. The same things that attracted older employees to the jobs likely won't work now, she said.

Younger workers want to hear about flexible work arrangements and balancing work with outside interests, she said.

"They don't live to work; they work to live," Fogle said.

Duke Realty's Denise Dank agrees.

"People have pulled back ... from the peak of the 1980s when everybody was willing to live their job," said Dank, senior vice president of human resources.

And companies are getting more savvy about how to send the right message. For example, when Lilly officials were wooing an executive they knew was an opera fan, they set up a one-on-one dinner meeting with the head of the Indianapolis Opera-something that might not be possible in a larger city.

But while the extra effort is paying off for companies, it also means they want new hires to stick around. That's where Indy Hub may help.

What young guns want

In addition to the social events, the group plans to roll out some new options next year, including a service for companies that will pair new recruits with locals to show them Indianapolis highlights.

But as much as Indy Hub and its backers want to lure and keep young talent, they're not shouting that from the rooftops. Experts say that's because studies show younger people get turned off if they feel they're being hit over the head with a marketing message that might not ring sincere.

In fact, young professionals can be demanding when it comes to picking a place to live, according to guru Ryan.

She hasn't studied Indianapolis specifically, but said young professionals usually are drawn to cities with "stroll districts," vibrant urban neighborhoods where they can walk to work, dinner and social events.

"I think there are neighborhoods in Indianapolis where [they] do feel right at home," she said.

They also usually look at how a city is taking care of its historic places.

"The next generation is very well traveled," she said. "They want to tap into communities that have a sense of place."

And housing options have to be affordable-a rarity among some of downtown's newer condo projects.

"It's just my sense, but I think that for a city to keep its soul, educated workers have to bump up against the homeless on a daily basis, against all kinds of people who are different from them," Ryan said. Young professionals "want to see the tattooed, green-haired music freak pass by the businessmen in Armani suits."

While some are raising the alarm bells and snapping up young college grads, others say the impending demographic shift might be more of a bump in the road than a crisis.

Researcher Graham Toft is one such naysayer. Toft, a principal at Floridabased Growth Economics Inc., collaborated on a recent University of Indianapolis study on Indiana's aging work force.

Toft said increased productivity and more opportunities for boomers to extend their work lives while cutting back from full-time employment should help ease the transition.

The main hurdle to that might be companies themselves. A follow-up study to be released early next year shows that while many Indiana companies are talking about the problem, most have not instituted policy changes that would allow boomers the flexibility to quasi-retire.
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