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Don Cunningham: It’s a Brave New World for Millennials

By Colin McEvoy on May 24, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on May 23, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I was in New York City last week for my son’s college graduation.

We celebrated the end of his formal education — and secretly toasted our emancipation from college tuition payments.

He’s the last of three. The first entered college in 2008. And, due to a less than strategic gaping of birth years, it’s been a full decade of transporting children and transferring money to Temple University, West Virginia University, and now Parsons School of Design.

Turns out, their mother and I — with some baby boomer grandparent assistance — became our own post-recession economic stimulus program pumping cash into the economy and millennials into the workforce.

In the end, we’ll be either heralded or scorned depending on how the great millennial experiment concludes. Early results should coincide with the last parent-plus payment in 2030.

Our generation, which came of age in the 1980s, was, of course, well aware that, “the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.” You couldn’t turn on a radio or MTV in 1986 without Whitney Houston’s beautiful voice subliminally planting it in our brains through her hit song, “Greatest Love of All.”

I think history will reflect that this song indirectly created the millennial generation.

Mullets, big hair, and a lot of stupid clothes gave way to helicopter parenting and the creation of the first generation to grow up with the internet, cellphones, and snowboarding as an Olympic sport.

Now, I can’t go to an economic development meeting, listen to a conference speaker, or read a business article without being told of the importance of the millennials, what they want, and what you need to do to attract them.

There are times I can’t believe that it’s my children they are talking about. Some of these people should stop over when they’re home for the weekend.

But, it’s a brave new world — a very different one — one that requires workers with new skills, technological literacy and a different perspective to keep pace with changes that come now by the hour.

Aside from that, there are two reasons this generation is putting down big footprints: its sheer size and its proclivity for living in cities.

Statistics are a little questionable when it comes to millennials since no one can really agree on a definition for them but, according to recent surveys, 70 percent of them want to live in an urban environment. My three millennials bear this out: one in New York, one in Philadelphia, and one in Whitehall Township.

Millennials, combined with the empty nesters — basically baby boomers and whatever the hell they call my generation of people in their 50s — are changing housing and development patterns across the country — and in the Lehigh Valley. It’s no longer about the suburban single-family house, but the downtown apartment.

Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton are all busy adding shiny apartment buildings in places everyone was trying to find a way to move out of for the last two generations. With its higher density and cluster of corporate offices and high-rise buildings, Allentown is outpacing the others. Many of the region’s financial services providers, banks, law firms, and corporate offices have found their way back into the Lehigh Valley’s largest city, also Pennsylvania’s third-largest. Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, CAPTRUST Financial Advisors, Avantor, and ESSA Bank & Trust have taken space in City Center Development Corp.’s new Tower 6 building.

St. Luke’s and Lehigh University are finding a home in south Bethlehem’s new office tower, while Lafayette College has been adding employees in downtown Easton. In total, 25 companies have moved into urban centers during the last five years, bringing with them about 2,500 jobs.

In addition, the region’s large professional employers like Air Products, Lehigh Valley Health Network, BB&T Bank, and others are leasing downtown office space to help attract and retain younger talent. The concept of living, working and recreating within walking distance, long part of the lure of New York and Boston, is now possible again in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.

Human resource executives of major employers and professional companies are in a competition for talent, specifically young talent. And, just like the college recruiters before them who tried to lure prospective students with cool lounges, workout facilities and redesigned student apartments, they need to sell the urban hip factor to millennials who want so much more than a job offer.

As Deep Throat said during Watergate, “follow the money.” Shiny new office buildings and apartments don’t get built unless the people and the money is there for them. This new Lehigh Valley is being fueled by our abundance and wide-range of colleges and universities, which conferred nearly 10,000 degrees during the last academic year, including 2,452 from our two community colleges.

The Lehigh Valley — and all three cities — have the cultural arts, recreation, and nightlife amenities to keep those graduates here and to attract others. This has been a long time coming. The region has turned a corner in its community and economic development

So, here comes the Class of 2018.

There are about 7,500 seniors in Lehigh Valley high schools graduating this year. There are another untold number of college graduates, like my son, who came from the Lehigh Valley but went to school elsewhere.

Back in 1987 when I came out of college, I can’t recall a single news article outlining what employers, cities, or communities needed to do to lure me. There were no sleep rooms at the office, fun zones, or cool shared collaborative spaces. But, hey, they didn’t even give our generation a name. Sometime later, as we began producing the babies who would become the vaunted millennials, some creative genius came up with the term Generation X.

Despite my generational bitterness, I love my millennials and I’m thrilled with the emergence of this new Lehigh Valley. As I watched my youngest son walk across the stage at Parsons and receive a degree in product design, I thought not of tuition payments but how much more my son knows than I do, how well he’s positioned to win a spot in this brave, new exciting world that he’ll help to create.

I also knew that our new Lehigh Valley has what it takes to someday lure him home, which made me smile — just as long as he’s not sleeping in my basement.

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