Don Cunningham: The Generation Wars are On, But Not How You May Think

By Colin McEvoy on May 29, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on May 29, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

A job ago, I was involved in helping develop the minor league baseball stadium we know today as Coca-Cola Park in Allentown.

One of the more interesting experiences during that process was hearing for the first time the term Brand X in the business world.

It happened in a meeting to negotiate the naming rights of the ballpark built and owned by Lehigh County and leased to the IronPigs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. We were meeting with Coca-Cola executives to sell them on paying to name the ballpark.

The decision would make it the only major or minor league sports stadium in the U.S. to carry the Coca-Cola brand.

“Are you also having discussions with Brand X?” a stern-faced Coca-Cola executive asked during the negotiations.

I was perplexed. What’s Brand X?

Turns out, Brand X is the term used when someone at a particular company doesn’t want to use the name of a competitor. It’s the political-world equivalent of never using your opponent’s name.

In this case Brand X was PepsiCo.

By marking them with an X, the hope was that they would be invisible.

I think that’s how my generation got named X.

The children of baby boomers and the parents of millennials, we are the invisible generation. Born between 1965 and 1980, we never got a cool name or were tagged with much of a brand. So, I guess X is appropriate.

I think to make us feel better, the demographers and media are now calling the group of post-millennials born between 1995 and 2012 Generation Z. Good luck with that name, kids.

The generation wars are on, but not in the way you may think.

For decades, Americans were good at making babies and adding population, which is integral to a growing economy. But last year, the U.S. population had its lowest natural growth rate, 0.62%, in 80 years. By 2035, there will be more seniors than children for the first time in the nation’s history, according to a Brookings Institution study released this spring.

Not only does this not bode well for the transfer of money from those working via taxes and Social Security and Medicare payments to those retired, it’s not a good situation for those who need employees.

I foresee a powerful political alliance emerging between mothers of millennials yearning for a grandchild and corporations that need future employees. I’m getting the hats printed now, “Keep America Great, Make More Babies!”

The race is on today to be the cities, regions or states that are growing, particularly in 18- to 34-year-olds. It’s the primary factor that employers look at in deciding where to stay and where to go. Without employees — and employees with talent — it’s very difficult to run a business or institution.

It wasn’t an accident that Amazon selected New York City and the Washington, D.C., area after searching the country to locate its new headquarters.

This is not good news for Pennsylvania, but great news for the Lehigh Valley.

Lehigh and Northampton are two of only 20 counties of the state’s 67 that are growing, according to the Pennsylvania State Data Center at Penn State-Harrisburg. Lehigh County is the fourth-fastest-growing county in Pennsylvania since the 2010 census. Northampton is the 11th.

Some Pennsylvania counties are losing 2-3% of their population each year.

Of the 20 growing counties in Pennsylvania, all surround Philadelphia in the southeast and south central part of the state, except Centre County, where Penn State University is located, and Butler County, a Pittsburgh suburb.

More importantly for the Lehigh Valley is its growth of 18- to 34-year-olds, which now comprise 42% of the workforce in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Pennsylvania’s total population of this sought-after cohort is 22%.

The millennial generation, with a little bit of Gen Z thrown in, is the fastest growing part of the Lehigh Valley’s population, at a rate of 5% since 2013.

The so-called brain drain of previous decades has ended.

Bethlehem and Easton now have a larger percentage of 18-to-34-year-old residents than Philadelphia. Bethlehem is at 31.1% and Easton’s is 30.5%. Philadelphia has 29.4% of its population in 18- to 34-year-olds, while Allentown is not far behind with 28.2%.

This segment of the population is the only one in America that moves in large numbers to jobs and opportunity. Overall, Americans are less mobile than at any time since before World War II; only 10% of Americans changed ZIP codes last year.

The situation is so profound that many cities, regions and states are now incentivizing young talent to move instead of companies. Hamilton, Ohio, will pay off $5,000 in student loan debt to millennials who live in its downtown and work locally. In 77 Kansas counties, up to $15,000 in student loan debt or income tax will be forgiven as part of its Rural Opportunity Zone program. There are similar programs in St. Clair County, Michigan, Detroit, Utah and Vermont.

Let the record reflect none of these programs are applicable for Generation X. We remain invisible. Our greatest accomplishment is creating millennials.

To think I spent the last five years working to get my three millennials out of the basement and into the work force only to learn that they are economic gold.

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