City a magnet for young people, but they do not stay, Pew report finds

Ben Novack, 29, a software engineer, lives in a South Philadelphia trinity but says he'll likely leave the city when he's married and starting a family. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Ben Novack, 29, a software engineer, lives in a South Philadelphia trinity but says he'll likely leave the city when he's married and starting a family. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Posted: January 24, 2014

Philadelphia has become a magnet for young people in the powerhouse demographic group known as millennials, with residents ages 20 to 34 now accounting for more than a quarter of the city's population, according to a report released Wednesday.

The surge from 2006 through 2012, primarily in neighborhoods surrounding Center City, has helped reverse population decline and lifted the percentage of Philadelphia's young adults into line with New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, according to "Millennials in Philadelphia" by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The findings reflect a "promising but fragile boom," Pew cautioned, because half of these young adults said they would likely move out of the city in five to 10 years in search of better schools and stronger career prospects.

"Only 36 percent of millennials said they would recommend the city as a place to raise children, while 56 percent would not," wrote the report's author, Larry Eichel, project director of Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative. "With many young adults starting to raise families or thinking about doing so, this view is not a positive sign."

Millennials are so numerous - the children of baby boomers are among the largest U.S. generation ever - that their decisions to stay or go could aid or further harm the fortunes of a revenue-challenged city like Philadelphia. Their perceptions, therefore, are no small matter.

"They pay taxes but make relatively few demands on city services. Employers covet them for their ambition, their flexibility, and their willingness to work for relatively low wages. And if a substantial number of them put down roots and raise families in the city, they will help enhance its viability for years to come," Eichel wrote.

Millennials have been drawn to Philadelphia's walkable neighborhoods, bars, and restaurants, and to its affordability compared with, say, New York or Boston, Pew found. They have flooded other cities as well, but Philadelphia had lagged until recently.

The diversity of restaurants and the creative energy of colliding populations were among the lures for Ashley Scott, a Levittown native who moved to Northern Liberties a year ago after graduating from West Chester University with a bachelor's degree in environmental geography.

Similar forces attracted Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Alexis Howland, 29, in November, after she completed a master's in city planning at the Boston-area school.

"I really wanted to be someplace more affordable," Howland said Wednesday. "I also was interested in being in a city that had a strong creative culture."

Both women, included in the Pew report, found all that to be true after moving in.

And yet, as a group, millennials were markedly more downbeat than other Philadelphians when asked by Pew about remaining in the city for the long haul.

Only 54 percent said they would rate the city as an excellent or good place to live. That number was 62 percent among older Philadelphians, Pew found.

A major reason, Howland and Scott said in separate interviews, is what they see as a less-than-optimal job market. Both women said they would likely be leaving - reluctantly, and sooner than later - for that reason.

"I really like Philadelphia. The quality of life that I see here and the friends that I have here is highly desirable to me," said Howland.

However, she said, "it actually doesn't have a booming job market compared to Boston or New York or D.C."

Friends from college have had more success finding good jobs in those more expensive cities.

Howland has spent several months networking and living with acquaintances in the Art Museum neighborhood, still without a job. By the end of February, she said, she would expand her employment options to include the nation's capital and the world's financial capital.

Scott, a human resources professional, became disenchanted by income-growth prospects after only six months in the city. "It just doesn't seem that there's too much here unless you're an accountant or a lawyer," she said.

Beyond career growth, Pew found, millennials were concerned about the underfunded public school system. "Nobody I know sees a future in having school-age kids in Philadelphia," Ben Novack, 29, a software engineer who lives in Bella Vista, was quoted as having told researchers.

A spokesman for Mayor Nutter agreed that school funding was a significant concern - and one that the mayor is working to address with lawmakers in Harrisburg.

"I think we're moving in the right direction," said spokesman Mark McDonald. "The hope is that we'll have more good schools, whether they're district-run or charter-run, in the coming years to meet their needs."

How confident was he that substantial change could be effected before millennials abandon the city for suburban homes and districts?

"Very, very soon," McDonald said, "we need to deal with the funding issue in the schools."

At the same time, he touted the city's progress in reducing crime, and expressed confidence in a strengthening economy.

From the perspective of Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., the Pew findings underscored the need to act swiftly to shore up the flagging district, said spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"We are already cognizant of the fact that we must move with tremendous speed and urgency," Gallard said Wednesday night. "We are driven by a great sense of urgency in the work we are doing turning around schools."

Pew's 19-page report drew population findings from census survey estimates, and formed additional insights from Pew focus group surveys of 524 people ages 20 to 34, conducted from July 23 to Aug. 13, 2013. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 points for the millennials and 2.5 percent for the entire city.

The number of young Philadelphians increased by about 100,000 from 2006 through 2012, thus comprising 26 percent of the 1,547,607 Philadelphians on July 1, 2012.

That figure trailed Boston, where young adults make up 35 percent of the population, and Austin, Texas, Washington, and Seattle, where 31 percent of residents are young adults.

The highest concentrations of millennials were in Manayunk, Center City, University City, and Fairmount, where more than 40 percent of all adults were between 20 and 34.

The next most popular neighborhoods, where 30 percent to 40 percent were millennials, were South Philadelphia, East Falls, Roxborough, Northern Liberties, Kensington/Fishtown, and a section of North Philadelphia near Temple University.

Most of the growth occurred beyond Center City, in neighborhoods that have seen explosive redevelopment.

Fishtown and Northern Liberties, Fairmount and Brewerytown, South Philadelphia, and the Graduate Hospital area experienced the largest increase, along with renter-friendly Roxborough and Manayunk, several miles away along the Schuylkill.

What is behind the influx of millennials? Pew was not sure.

The biggest factor, Eichel said, was that a large number were already living in the city 10 years ago, but were too young to be counted in 2000 as young adults.

But that was true in cities across the country, Eichel said, lending credence to the notion that in-migration also was at play in Philadelphia.

One data nugget from one year alone hinted at this. About two-thirds of all residents who moved into Philadelphia in 2012 were millennials, and nearly 18,000 (39 percent) moved from another county in Pennsylvania, 21,000 (46 percent) from another state, and 7,000 (15 percent) from a foreign country.

Forty percent of millennial Philadelphians were non-Hispanic white, and as a group they were better educated than older city residents, Pew found.



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