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From his perch in Florida, 27-year-old Ryan Cox eyed two cities in which to pursue his tech career: San Francisco and Minneapolis.
In many ways, beginning with climate, San Francisco had the edge. But in the end, it was all about the Benjamins -- and what they get you in one city vs. the other. "The pay would have been the exact same dollar amount," said Cox, who lives near Loring Park. "But when you look at what it would get you in San Francisco in comparison to Minneapolis? It was a no-brainer."
Census numbers, some of them released this week, show that Cox is not alone. In the deadly serious national competition to attract the best and brightest, the Twin Cities area is maintaining its position as a top magnet for young professionals.
Despite weakened job growth, the area has added more than 20,000 college grads age 25 to 34 since the 2000 census, the new data show, and slipped only one slot among the 50 largest U.S. metro areas in that department, from fifth place to sixth.
"You're definitely in one of the healthiest positions of all the major metros," said Jonathan Rothwell, research analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and author of a new metro-by-metro study of jobs and workers.
A deeper look at the data suggests some causes of worry: A lot of places below us are catching up, with rates of growth in creative-class young people -- and in youthfulness, period -- much higher than ours.
But some of the best-known hot spots have their own worries that we don't have. As Cox's private calculus suggests, marquee cities such as Boston and San Francisco are bleeding youth, perhaps because of their high prices and the aggravations of daily life.
"In Chicago, it was more trying to figure out 'How to get here? What would be the fastest way? The cheapest way? Are you going to pay for parking?'" said Whitney Bauer, 24, whose first "real job" out of college is as an account coordinator for a Minnesota advertising firm. Living in Uptown, she said, "I feel things are more in my reach here."
Attracting a large pool of talented young workers is crucial for any metro area, said David Griggs, vice president of business investment for Greater MSP, a private-public partnership formed in March to juice economic growth. "We can't attract or help companies expand here in our region if we don't have workers," he said.
Demographers warn that it's even more fundamental than that -- it's about maintaining youthfulness, period, at a time when the number of over-45 Americans is climbing 18 times faster than is the number of those under 45.
"There is a growing divide between areas that are experiencing gains or losses in their younger populations," Brookings Institution demographer William Frey reported last summer. "Large stretches of the nation are sustaining only meager growth, or even declines, in their youth population."
Offering the goods
The 2000s was the decade of "creative class" theory, the idea that it's not just about luring companies but being the sort of place where bright young entrepreneurs and inventive workers want to live.
Just one quirky nerd with a concept for a website can create multibillion-dollar firms these days, and one survey suggested that educated young people are twice as likely to choose a city for its quality of life than just go any old place as long as it has a job. To that end, Minnesota has lavished billions on new and expanded stadiums, zoos, art museums, music venues, bike paths, rail transit and other amenities aimed in part at the affluent young.
Lacey Dunham, 29, moved from Washington, D.C., to the Loring Park area with her partner in August. "It just came down to Minneapolis having a really good reputation for all the things that were important to us," she said: bike-friendly, gay-friendly and outdoorsy. She also likes the city's laid-back attitude.
"Minneapolis is much more relaxed," Dunham said. "People here are dedicated to their careers, but they also carve out a time for family and friends. ... It seems like the end of the workday happens at 5 o'clock."
In overall migration, the Twin Cities draws from every other state, the census found, but it still draws mainly from Midwest states, including its own rural countryside.
"I really like the atmosphere of a bigger city," said Kendall Johnk, 24, who moved to the Twin Cities in 2010 from Moorhead, Minn., to become a communications manager for Supervalu's Cub Foods and Hornbacher's. "Every weekend if I wanted to do something different, I can find something different to do."
Jennifer Mergen, 32, who moved from Brainerd after a divorce last year and landed in a Minneapolis Warehouse District condo, agrees.
"I feel like I'm living a totally different life," she said. "I don't even recognize that person anymore. ... I can't think of anything I can't do 10 minutes from now if I really want to do it."
Partly because they are smallish cities in a major metro area but with a teeming university campus sprawling across both of them, demographer Frey found that Minneapolis and St. Paul are the nation's fifth-youngest when lined up against the primary cities in other metro areas. They're in the same league with college towns such as Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.
The Twin Cities area as a whole, his analysis showed, stayed even in its share of under-45s during the past decade, even as many others fell: not just Rust Belt cities like Akron or Milwaukee but more happening cities such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
Gainers, however -- those doing better than we are -- included key competitors such as Seattle (up 4 percent), Portland (up 7), Denver (up 9) and Atlanta (up 15).
And some young Twin Cities transplants caution that they are not counting on being here for good.
Akilah Mahon, 26, moved to Minneapolis three years ago from Kansas City, Mo. She loves Uptown but won't be here forever.
The compensations analyst for Cargill sees herself moving to a bigger and more diverse city in a few years. "I've got a sister that lives in Chicago, and I can't get her to come out here for the life of me," Mahon said. "She says everything I can do in Minneapolis, I can do in Chicago times 10." Her sentiments are echoed by Erica Chung, 23, who moved into an apartment near Lake Calhoun in February after living most of her life in Houston. "Right now my mind-set is that I'm young and it's easy to move," said Chung, a business management associate for General Mills.
Census data prove that her age group is precisely the one that does pick up stakes most often. And places like Austin, Texas, are probably a lot better known nationally than Minneapolis, for all the latter's prominence on lists of great places to live and work.
Still, there was a telling moment earlier this year, as national publications released lists of the best and worst places to head for. Seattle, which along with the Twin Cities made Kiplinger.com's list of one of the great places for young people, also made a Newsweek-affiliated website's list of the worst places. The reason: With everyone else heading to the same towns, unemployment has risen.
Aubrie Eisenhart, 26, has been looking for a job for months, after working in an AmeriCorps VISTA position that ended in July. Nonprofit job prospects in the Twin Cities, she's convinced, are way better than in Montana, where she moved from.
"I feel like I have a better chance."