So You Don’t Have a Lot of Hip Young Professionals…

Posted by N. David Milder


For over a decade Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have dueled over the proper way to analyze regional economic growth and their conflicting political and urban/ suburban preferences. They do agree, however, on one very basic and critical point: in today’s world, economic growth is very dependent on knowledge and geographically will tend to flow to areas where the knowledge workers cluster. (1)

Unfortunately, many within the economic development community have come to have a disproportionate amount of focus on and regard for one type of knowledge worker, the young hip urban professional. Too often communities feel unable to secure their economic futures because they have few young hip professionals or are led into futile attempts to attract them. Frequently overlooked are other assets that these young hipster deficient communities do have and that could be leveraged into economic growth.

Attention to young urban professionals within the economic development community predates the Florida-Kotkin “debates,” emerging in the 1980s. Once called “yuppies,” by the 1990s that term had became pejorative and worn out because of the segment’s behaviors and luxurious lifestyle. Later, around 2000, Richard Florida came along with his creative class theory that helped refocus attention on young knowledge workers and artists whose presence and behaviors shaped the hip, open-minded and welcoming urban communities that are conducive to growing creative class clusters. (2) About the same time downtown real estate developers and retailers had discovered the economic clout of these young well-educated urbanites, whom some referred to revealingly as “walking wallets.” Some developers of downtown residential buildings even had them specifically designed to suit this market segment in terms of apartment layouts, amenities and leasing policies. (3)

Googling “the importance of hip young professionals in economic development” brings up a host of articles that proclaim the economic significance of having a throng of young professionals in your community. For example, an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch stated:

“Based on lessons learned from “urban hub dynamics,” the long-term economic prosperity of metropolitan areas will be based, in part, on how quickly a region can become recognized as one of these preferred places for young professionals to live and work today.” (4)

However, there has been a well-known unevenness in the ability of metro areas to grow and/or attract young, hip knowledge workers. Consequently, many cities that did not have a lot of young professionals or that were losing them to hipper cities, have taken on action programs specifically aimed at wooing them, e.g., Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Memphis, Tampa, Indianapolis, Baton Rouge, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Tallahassee, and Fresno. (5).

Even within young professional rich metro areas, the geographic distribution of the young professionals usually is lopsided, taking on a split that leaves the suburbs well behind the urban cores. Does that mean that these suburban communities and their downtowns are doomed economically because of their young professionals deficits?  For them to try to replicate big city hip neighborhoods on a much smaller scale in and around their downtown areas may be an appealing strategy, though one of often questionable viability. Consider Richard Florida’s explanation of why young professionals are drawn to urban locations:

“Urban living provides them with thicker job and dating markets, opportunities to share rent with roommates, and plenty of things to do in their off hours, from bar-hopping to attending graduate school.” (6)

Suburban communities that want to erase a young professionals deficit need to have sufficient and appropriate “thicknesses” and should ask:

  • Are they basically bedroom communities with a supportive downtown or are their downtowns regional commercial centers?
  • Can they generate enough knowledge worker employment opportunities nearby?
  • Can they provide a density of entertainment/leisure activity options that approaches those of large urban neighborhoods?
  • Can they reach a young professional critical population mass that can attract other young professionals?
  • Can they provide affordable and attractive downtown rental housing and will the landlords do leases when roommates are involved?

Perhaps suburban communities and metro areas with young professional deficits should have a more realistic perspective on the economic advantages of young professional populations and then take an in-depth look at other assets that they do have for leveraging economic growth.

Putting Young Professionals in Perspective as Economic Growth Assets  

Discussions of young professionals often conjure up images of brilliant young entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, who in their 20s founded huge high technology companies in a garage, a dorm room or a makeshift office. (7) These young business titans seem to demonstrate the superior entrepreneurship, high tech know-how and inventiveness of young professionals, an image that is also reinforced by reports of slower adoption of digital technologies by older age cohorts. (8)

Entrepreneurship. Some very credible research done for the Kauffman Foundation clearly shows that people in the 20-34 age group are not the most entrepreneurial, but the least. For example, a 2009 report by Dane Stangler found that:

 “Contrary to popularly held assumptions, it turns out that over the past decade or so, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55-64 age group. The 20-34 age bracket, meanwhile, which we usually identify with swashbuckling and risk-taking youth (think Facebook and Google), has the lowest rate. Perhaps most surprising, this disparity occurred during the eleven years surrounding the dot-com boom—when the young entrepreneurial upstart became a cultural icon.” (9)

 Furthermore, another Kauffman study by Robert Fairlee published in 2011 found that between1996 and 2010 the 20-34 age group’s proportion of new entrepreneurs dropped from 35% to 26%, while the 55-64 age group’s proportion rose from 14% to 23% (10)
Freelancers are self-employed, not committed long-term to a client or employer and usually not incorporated. They can be in a wide range of industries and occupations. In many of our urban creative clusters, “creative freelancing” also is a growing trend. For example:

“In a 2005 report, the Center for an Urban Future estimated that 22,000 “creative freelancers”—writers, artists, architects, producers, and interior, industrial, and graphic designers—lived in Brooklyn, an increase of more than 33 percent since 2000. The Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation has dubbed the area from Red Hook to Greenpoint the “Creative Crescent.” (11)

Many of these freelancers are Millennials, i.e., people born between 1977 and 1993. The online freelancer job mart oDesk (sic) had a survey done of “independent workers (freelancers) worldwide who had been active on odesk within 180days.” Unfortunately, no data was provided on how many respondents were from the USA, but, given that oDesk is based in CA and the website operates in English, one might reasonably presume that most respondents were American. Almost 2,000 of the freelancer respondents were Millennials and their views about entrepreneurship are revealing. They are certainly enthused by entrepreneurship though their understanding of the concept is rather untraditional: it is divorced from the notion of starting a business. As Rieva Lesonsky summarized their views:

  • For 90 percent of Millennials surveyed, being an entrepreneur means having a certain mindset, rather than starting a company.”
  • “Aspects of this mindset mentioned included being a self-starter, risk-taker, visionary and someone who ‘spots opportunity.’ ”
  • “Millennials see themselves as building entrepreneurial careers whether they work for someone else or freelance – they don’t necessarily have to start their own businesses.” (12)

In this respect, the Millennials’ “new entrepreneurship,” in both attitude and deed, may help channel them to corporate careers since it is exactly what corporations now are looking for in new hires. According to Eleonora Sharef of

 “The most successful job candidates… are ‘inventors and solution-finders,’ who are relentlessly ‘entrepreneurial’ because they understand that many employers today don’t care about your résumé, degree or how you got your knowledge, but only what you can do and what you can continuously reinvent yourself to do.” (13)

 Creativeness/Inventiveness. Prima facie, it seems absurd to think that creativity and inventiveness halt completely or significantly after people reach 30 or 35. While there appears to be a lot of conventional wisdom on this subject and a number of opinion-based articles, there are surprisingly few rigorous studies. Also, the linguistic boundaries between being creative and being inventive or innovative are unclear, which makes analysis difficult. That said, if we take even a quick look at artists, be they in the visual or performing arts, they certainly appear to be creative well past their 30s, as the careers of people as diverse as da Vinci, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Pollack, Grant, Olivier, Brando, Hepburn, Wilder, Lean, Ford, Allen, Kazan, Spielberg, Bach, Casals, Horowitz, Rachmaninoff and Perlman demonstrate. However, within those careers, many of the artists achieved one or more new styles or techniques that others saw as innovative and inventive. Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, for example, were well known for their innovations, which continued on through the length of their careers. Among writers, many continued to produce works late in their lives, a small sample of whom might include Charles Dickens, Henry James, Mark Twain, Herman Wouk, Philip Roth, Agatha Christie, George Simenon and John Le Carré.

If we look at the worlds of science and technology a similar pattern emerges, with the exception of mathematics. Within academia it is commonly held that great mathematical achievements are overwhelmingly done by those under 30. Yet, Isaac Newton, who did indeed invent calculus when he was 24, then went on to invent modern physics when he was in his 40s. While Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and James Watson did their best work in their 20s, Michael Faraday, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, Fritz Haber and Louis Pasteur did theirs in their 40s. (14)

Many of our digital wunderkinds have achieved or try to keep on making significant innovations later in their lives. Steve Jobs certainly made a splash in his 20s when he and Steve Wozniak invented the Apple computer, but he later founded Next and Pixar and many observers feel that his decades later contributions to the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad were of equal or even far greater significance. Bill Gates also made major digital innovations while in his 20s and now is working on globally eradicating major diseases and improving education. Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google with their innovative search algorithm while in their 20s and now have their company working on such things as driverless cars and carbon free energy generation. Elon Musk helped found PayPal while in his 20s and now is involved in Tesla electric cars, SpaceX rocket launchers and SolarCity, a provider of solar energy systems. Furthermore, Silicon Valley is known for its many “serial entrepreneurs.”

One rigorous and interesting research project written in 2008 by Benjamin Jones at the Kellogg School of Management reported that the age of the innovators when they attain “great achievements in knowledge” is getting older and older: “The great achievements in knowledge of the 20th Century occurred at later and later ages. The mean age at great achievement for both Nobel Prize winners and great technological inventors rose by about 6 years over the course of the 20th Century. This aging phenomenon appears to be substantially driven by declining innovative output in the early life-cycle.” (15) Moreover, this research seems to show that “a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have significantly more innovation potential than a 25- year-old.” (16)

They Like Dense Urban Environments.  If young creatives are not more entrepreneurial or innovative than other age cohorts, then why have they captured the attention of so many within the economic development community? It is not because they play a critical role in Florida’s defining of the creative class, in which the pivotal, all important concept is that of the work people do, whatever their age or education. As Florida has explained, he developed his theory as an alternative to human capital theories of regional development:

 “Human capital theory uses educational attainment (typically the percentage of adults with a college degree), a very broad measure that excludes such successful entrepreneurs as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who didn’t graduate from college. My creative class measure is based on the work people actually do, as measured by detailed Bureau of Labor Statistics data. This allows researchers and economic developers to zero in on the actual occupational categories – science and engineering, arts and culture, business and management, meds and eds – that make up the creative class and other occupational classes….

 The creative class is not just a proxy measure for college graduates. Roughly three?quarters of college grads in America work in creative class jobs, but four in ten members of the creative class— 16.6 million workers—do not have college degrees.” (17)

 A more viable explanation of why the economic development community has focused so much of its attention on one subset of the creative class, the hip young creatives, is not the kind of work they do so much as where they like to live and their leisure time and entertainment activities. For decades, the economic development community was searching for a way to revitalize our nation’s urban areas. Numerous researchers, including Florida, Eugenie Birch and, even in some writings, Kotkin, have demonstrated that young professionals’ lifestyle preferences provide a potential solution path: they like living in dense urban environments and are flocking to them. (18)

Also interesting is that fact that this same research has shown that empty nesters, too, like dense urban living and are downsizing from their suburban single-family homes to urban apartments and townhouses. However, the economic development community has focused far less attention on the empty nesters than it has given the young hipsters.

While the hip young creatives may prefer living in dense urban areas, suburban areas can also attract large numbers of residents whose occupations fall within Florida’s definition of the Creative Class. (19) For example, in 2011, Morris County, NJ has 123,629 residents, 49% of the 269,714 in the labor force, who are in management, business, science, and arts occupations. (20) Many non-Millennial knowledge workers who have children prefer living in the suburbs. What proportion of them will move to urban core areas when their nests empty is unknown, but the odds are that significant numbers will stay in their suburban homes and/or communities, perhaps in their own downtowns in newly built or refurbished apartments. Other creatives/knowledge workers, the “lone eagles,” prefer to live and work in scenic rural “Valhallas.”(21)

Attraction for Employers. Many companies like to recruit the best and the brightest out of our nation’s top colleges and universities because they think they are accessing new ideas and techniques. Nonetheless, many firms also have a preference for hiring younger people that is based on bottom line reasoning. For example, it is not unusual to see a number of stories in the media about the age preferences in corporate hiring and the difficulties that people over 40 have in finding new jobs. Many firms prefer to hire younger people because they will work at lower salaries for longer hours, will probably be healthier and have more distant pension payouts than older and more experienced workers. One observer cited data showing that associates in one global law firm work an average of 2,462 billable and unbillable hours a year, 47 to 49 hour a week, though others in the industry claim the weekly total is probably closer to 60 hours. (22) It is not uncommon in New York City to hear claims that firms in the advertising, entertainment and legal industries “like to eat their young.”

Corporations also like to hire freelancers because of lower salary and benefit costs. As noted above, many firms may also like the millennial freelancers’ new  entrepreneurial mindsets.

How this will affect corporate office locational decisions remains to be seen. Certainly there is an interest in tapping this labor market segment in regions where they are present. Often, firms may not have to locate in downtowns to tap this labor market. When making locational decisions many firms will look at labor pools defined by 30 to 45 minute travel times, which means that many urban core young knowledge workers can be tapped from many suburban locations. Some firms may decide for suburban or urban locations depending upon the situation. Google, for instance, has not moved to San Francisco though it has hundreds of white buses transporting its employees everyday from the city to and from its headquarters Mountainview complex, an hour’s drive away. Yet, it also has a very large presence in Manhattan. Also, reverse commuting has been growing in many metro areas.

Population Size. The Millennials, of which the young urban hipsters are a subset, constitute the largest generation, about 23% of the US population, but they are outnumbered by the combined populations of the older and still largely active Gen X with16%, Younger Boomers 14%, and Older Boomers 10%. (23)

 Some Suggested Take Aways

  • There is little doubt that urban areas with a cluster of young hip creatives have a strong asset capable of driving a good part of their revitalization efforts
  • But, if you don’t have a heap of hip young creatives in or near your community, you may have lots of older creatives or some other assets, e.g., gas and petroleum trapped in shale rock, upon which your economic revitalization can be built
  • There probably are more knowledge workers and artistic people who are older than 35 years of age than younger
  • These “mature creatives” are more entrepreneurial and, at a minimum, just as innovative and creative as the younger group
  • In metro areas that are rich in knowledge workers, many of them probably live and/or work in suburban communities and these communities should have revitalization strategies that clearly recognize and leverage this asset
  • It should not be forgotten that many non-Millennial knowledge workers and artists also often live and/or work in dense urban areas, e.g., office workers, teachers and researchers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, architects, etc.


The author is not a Millennial, though he is quite fond of his friends and relatives who are.


1.  See for example: Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Basic Books, 2002, pp. 402; Joel Kotkin, The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape, Random House.(November 2000) pp. 256. The family of terms creatives, young professionals, young urban hipsters, knowledge workers, artists are used in this article as basically referring to very similar if not entirely completely congruent groups of people, some being subsets of others.

2. Richard Florida, “Competing in the Age of Talent: Quality of Place and the New Economy,” January 2000, pp. 55

3. Personal interviews with developers from 2003 through 2007

4. John W. Martin and Jack Berry, “Winning young professionals,” Richmond Times Dispatch,  May 20, 2013

5 Haya El Nasser,  “Mid-sized cities get hip to attract young professionals,” Yahoo! News, October 10, 2003

6. Richard Florida, “The Fading Differentiation between City and Suburb,” Urban Land, January 31, 2013, Article 

7. Tom Agan, “Why Innovators Get Better With Age,” New York Times, March 30, 2013

8. Maeve Duggan and Joanna Brenner, “The Demographics of Social Media Users — 2012,” PewResearchCenter, February 14, 2013. ; Kathryn Zickuhr, Generations and their gadgets, Pew Internet, Feb 3, 2011

9. Dane Stangler, “The Coming Entrepreneurship Boom,” Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, June 2009, pp. 6 p.4. Kauffman’s research looks at “all new business owners, including those who own incorporated or unincorporated businesses, and those who are employers or non-employers.”

10. Robert W. Fairlie, “Kauffman Index Of Entrepreneurial Activity 1996 – 2010,” Kauffman Foundation, March 2011, pp. 28, p.9.

11. Kay S. Hymowitz, “How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back: New York’s biggest borough has reinvented itself as a postindustrial hot spot.” City Journal, Autumn 2011,

12. Rieva Lesonsky, “Millennials Are Rewriting the Rules of Work and Entrepreneurship” reports on a survey that had a full sample of 3,193, of which 1,958 were Millennials and was done by Millennial Branding for oDesk. For the oDesk slideshow on the report see:

13. As described in Thomas L. Friedman, “How to Get a Job,” New York Times, May 28, 2013, NYT Article here

14. See:

15. Benjamin F. Jones , “Age and Great Invention,” Kellogg School of Management,  April 2008

16. See Tom Egan above

17. Richard Florida,

18. Eugenie L. Birch, “Who Lives Downtown,” November 2005 • The Brookings Institution • Living Cities Census Series, pp. 20

19. Kris Hudson, Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2013,”Is Generation Y a ‘Game Changer’ for Housing?”

20. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007-2011 American Community Survey

21. See: Philip M. Burgess, “Lone Eagles Are a Varied Species,” The Rocky Mountain News, April 12, 1994 and Joel Kotkin, The New Geography cited above

22. Steven J. Harper, “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour,” New York Times , March 28, 2013,

23. Pew Research Center’s typology of generations was used with national census data for 2011 to compute these population estimates.

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