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Detroit is Losing Young Professionals. Our Outdoors can Win them Back.

In the fight to retain the Detroit region's Millennial and Gen Z workers, our greatest - and most underutilized - asset for retaining young professionals is our natural environment. Here's how we can spur on our region's viability through prioritizing the growth of our outdoor opportunities.

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The Great State of Michigan - and the Detroit region specifically - is an incredible place to call home. Speaking both personally and professionally, we at Expedition Detroit couldn't imagine a better "base camp" location than this corner of the Great Lakes. Beyond the world-class outdoors, resurgent economy, state of the art venues, and cross-border experiences, the main draw to living and working in Detroit can be summarized in one word:


"Opportunity."


We've experienced that opportunity first hand. While other large metropolitan areas present an upstream battle trying to launch a new career, entrepreneurial pursuit, or nonprofit initiative, the cumulative effect of our relatively low cost of living, rich innovative ecosystem, and undeniably resilient work ethic provides the perfect recipe for successful launches. Truly, the immense growth that we obtained in our first year stems largely for the intangible benefits of simply launching here. In Metro Detroit. Within its emerging outdoor industry.


And yet...people are still leaving - especially our region's young professionals, aged 25 to 34. In a recent article published by Crain's Detroit Business, 20-somethings about to graduate from Michigan's universities cited Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Minneapolis as "talent magnets" drawing them away from our fresh coasts.


For us at Expedition Detroit, this issue is very personal - "the pain point," as an earlier business mentor succinctly put it. Most of my closest friends have taken career opportunities in markets outside of the Detroit region, and especially within "conventional adventure hubs" like Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and North Carolina. Their rationales for doing so were valid, and ultimately they believed that the professional and personal lifestyle opportunities found in other markets fared better than here.


In a world inundated with "live your truths," "safe space bubbles," and cheap dopamine hits going for a dime a dozen on social media, the market stands undefeated as an objective indicator for well how a business - or an economy - is truly performing. Yes, the trophy case of accolades that Detroit's resurgence has collected in recent years is worth celebrating, but at the proverbial "close of business," our numbers are down. Worse yet, they're projected to stay down.


Unless, of course, we collectively decide to change course in several meaningful ways. We roll up our sleeves as only Detroiters know how to do and refine the strategies that are drawing young professionals to distant destinations. We implement innovative, disruptive, and market-redefining approaches to what it means to live, work, and thrive in a metropolitan area.


And, as the stone-cold data supports, one of the best places to start is by emphasizing our outdoors.

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STATE OF THE YOUNG STATE

Friends, there's no way to sugar coat this: the state of Michigan's young state is not good. Since 1990, Michigan has ranked 49th in population growth, with demographers anticipating our figures to further drop until 2050.


Beyond non-existent population bragging rights, this prognosis has truly dire consequences for our state's viability. This unfortunate trend means that businesses will continue to struggle accessing a skilled workforce, dynamic corporations will flock to other markets for infrastructure investments, and our state will continue to lose representation in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. These doomsday indicators have dominated the headlines for the last month, prompting the Whitmer Administration to expedite "population growth" as one of its key policy issues and establish the "Growing Michigan Together Council."


The figures demonstrating Michigan's exodus of recent college graduates is especially worrisome. Only 55% of voters between the age of 18 and 29 believe they will still be living in Michigan a decade from now, according to a statewide public opinion survey. In the period spanning 2017 to 2021, an average of 9,000 Michiganders with bachelor’s degrees or higher left the state every year, according to Census data from the American Community Survey. That figure was fortunately offset somewhat by 3,000 in-bound professionals per year, but the macro-trend still does not bode well for our economic vitality.


So...why exactly are college grads adopting the U-Haul as their "official vehicle of young professionals from Michigan"? The main complaint is lack of job opportunities outside of the automotive industry or manufacturing in general. Michigan's cold temperatures, lack of comprehensive public transportation, episodic economic growth have also contributed to repelling our graduates. Each of those very tangible factors can be addressed through economic and infrastructure investments (well, maybe not the cold).


There's another category, however, that constitutes a significant draw to younger professionals. A more intangible, yet immensely important, factor to building a life within a particular region. One that the Detroit region is uniquely positioned to capitalize on within the coming decade: Lifestyle.


And, as the post-pandemic data continues to supporting, especially an outdoor lifestyle.

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ALLURE OF THE OUTDOORS

"I think a big one for me would be safety in a city, being able to walk around and feeling like I can be able to go out to places and don't have to go with a big group all the time."


This quote from a forthcoming Albion College graduate sums up a general sentiment that young professionals - most notably "Generation Z" that came of age during the pandemic - value in their budding careers. Alongside economic opportunities, young workers want to feel alive within and connected to the place where they work. An ample supply of safe green spaces, innovative outdoor infrastructure, and accessibility to world-class outdoor opportunities go hand-in-hand with upward mobility and higher-market salaries within the job searching spectrum.


The lasting legacy of the pandemic's impact on the preferences of our young workforce cannot be understated. While Americans struggled with the mental and physical effects of the nation-wide Covid-19 lockdowns, nature became the go-to antidote. With the entrenchment of "work from home" policies spanning multiple years, Americans reevaluated which intrinsic values should be associated with their ideal concept of "home." In this vein, park visitation figures skyrocketed, outdoor recreation participation metrics shattered records, and millions of workers found their preferences irrevocably impacted by the immensity of benefits associated with an outdoor-centric lifestyle.


Colorado Springs, CO provides an ideal archetype of the allure of outdoor recreation to young professionals. The city boasts 7,000 acres of open space for hiking and biking, 230 miles of bike trails, 160 miles of park trails, and 105 miles of urban trails. Millennial and Gen Z workers have flocked to the city in droves, noting the draw of seamlessly incorporating outdoor recreation, natural immersion, and exercise into their daily commutes and general work life within the city. A near perfect ying-yang balance of work and life.


On a national scope, Outside Magazine, one of the world's leading outdoor industry periodicals, maintains a "Most Livable Towns and Cities in America" list. Each location listed is given a scorecard listing several metrics, including conventional median home price, population, and diversity categories. The scorecards also contain uniquely-outdoor qualifiers, such as percentage of city that's parkland," "percentage of residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a park," and "percentage of residents of color who live within a 10-minute walk of a park." Unsurprisingly, each of the featured cities ranks highly in these outdoor qualifiers.

expedition detroit young professionals work life balance outdoors population hiking michigan canada windsor

REIMAGINING DETROIT: AMERICA'S PREMIERE OUTDOOR LIFESTYLE DESTINATION

This article has admittedly been a "downer," so let's kick off the holidays on a high: Detroit constitutes North America's greatest opportunity to continue reinventing itself as a premiere outdoor destination. One with the undeniable capacity to attract generations of workers - especially younger professionals - to an unmatched quality of work-life balance.


No, this isn't wishful thinking. In fact, the foundation has already been laid and the gears are rapidly turning.


On the community front, organizations like Thrive Outside Detroit have curated events geared towards engaging the City of Detroit's youth in nature-based activities. Thrive Outside has partnered with the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Belle Isle Nature Center, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Detroit Public Schools Community District to collaboratively engage Detroit's next generation of outdoor enthusiasts with creative and impactful outdoor experiences.


From a trails, greenways, and parks perspective, Detroit is spear-heading a multi-tiered approach to connecting its entire community to accessible, world-class outdoor experiences and destinations. Vacant lots are being converted into cutting-edge parks. Initiatives like the Joe Louis Greenway are creating hundreds of miles of safe, accessible, and stunningly beautiful corridors for recreation and transportation. The ever-expanding Detroit Riverfront Trail continues to connect and draw Detroit's disparate neighborhoods to its pristine - and award-winning - riverwalk. As the cherry on top, the new Gordie Howe International Bridge will directly connect all of these city-based destinations to Windsor's section of the Trans-Canada Trail.


While we could easily conclude this article with a punch list of cutting-edge outdoor initiatives that have launched within the City of Detroit over the past few years, we'll conclude by reiterating what living, working, and recreating in Detroit presents: opportunity. Especially in the outdoor arena, Detroit's unique geography, land availability, trail infrastructure, and population demographics presents an unprecedented opportunity to creatively innovate within the outdoor recreation industry. In virtually real time, we can craft a regional landscape intended to attract, engage, maintain professionals of all ages, and ethnicities - most notably our recent college graduates.


In other words, just as our region pioneered automotive mobility, we have the perfect opportunity to build the prototype for a dynamic, interconnected, and inconclusive outdoor ecosystem. The model outdoor destination for the 21st century professional recreationist. The next generation of great Detroiters.

 

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