Politicians from both parties seem in a particularly destructive mood just now. Consider their response to what might be one of Minnesota’s biggest economic problems: the failure to keep and attract young talent.
Once a net importer of younger Americans, the state has in recent years become a loser. An estimated 9,300 more 18- to 24-year-olds are moving out every year than are moving in. And even after attending college or getting their first jobs in other states, fewer are returning.
Unless that trend is reversed — whether by retaining more homegrown talent or attracting more newcomers — this aging state will face an epic shortage of workers in the coming decades. That, in turn, will trigger a sharp decline in tax revenues, services and the quality of life that Minnesotans cherish.
But, in the face of this heavy challenge, political leaders are busy opposing amenities that would enhance Minnesota’s appeal to talented young people. The tepid response to a new soccer stadium in downtown Minneapolis won’t, by itself, exacerbate the outward flow. But when added to a list of punitive, anti-metro measures pushed by Republicans and some rural DFLers in the Legislature, the message is clear enough: Minnesota doesn’t care about urban-style enhancements that hold special appeal for the young and skilled who can live and work anywhere in the country.
Most important are the transportation options that Republicans want to strip from the metro landscape, especially new light-rail lines and the walkable neighborhoods that come with them. In addition, the GOP’s targeting of Minneapolis and St. Paul for deep cuts in local government aid clearly intends to punish the places with the greatest potential to attract young talent.
If anything, state and city leaders should be strengthening the appeal of neighborhoods like the North Loop and Uptown in Minneapolis and Lowertown in St. Paul. But too often ideology gets in the way.
Indeed, there’s a stark geographic pattern to migration statistics. Outstate counties continue to lose young people, as they have for decades. What’s new is that the Twin Cities metro, while still a net importer, no longer keeps or attracts enough young people to offset the big outstate losses. Even the state’s star performer, Hennepin County, relies increasingly on international in-migration rather than on a sizable flow of “millennials” from other states — usually considered the gold standard in the competition for young talent.
What’s important for policymakers to understand is that, like it or not, youthful in-migration is almost entirely a metro game. Metropolitan areas, not states, have become the basic unit of economic competition. The nation’s 100 largest metros now generate three-quarters of the nation’s gross domestic product. The young Minnesotans interviewed for a Star Tribune story on the topic last Sunday were not fleeing to Massachusetts, Texas and Washington State, but to Boston, Austin and Seattle. Indeed, the Twin Cities — not the entire state — is the relevant geographic unit for comparing young talent migration.
To that end, the State Demographic Center, the Metropolitan Council and Greater MSP (the metro’s marketing arm), should consider routinely generating data specific to the metro area. Also, policymakers need a far clearer understanding of why so many young Minnesotans are leaving the state for college and not returning. Finally, Minnesota’s civic and political leaders must be far less bashful in promoting the Twin Cities nationally. The more this region begins to define itself — and market itself — as a city, not a state, the better its chances of popping up on the radar screens of talented young adults.