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Michigan’s detours into social issues won’t help attract young talent

I was pretty proud of myself upon landing my first grownup-person job several years ago. It came with such new-to-me perks as a salary, health insurance and this mind-boggling thing where you don't work on holidays, but still get paid like you were there. There were business cards, too. They had my name on them.

Because I was so impressed with myself and these treasures, I was pretty bummed out when one of my favorite new co-workers pulled me aside to offer his condolences on my rotten deal.


Far from agreeing that I'd just won the employment lottery, my friend couldn't believe I was being denied the decency of a pension, and instead had to settle for a 401(k).

Ha! OK. I see. This guy in his 50s, who was completely up-to-date on urban planning and economic development, totally misunderstood what someone my age wanted in benefits. That made sense; at that time, I was the youngest person employed by the city by about four presidential terms. Most of the staffers were Reagan-era hires.

To clarify, quickly: No one born in the 1980s or since wants a pension. We don't want to mess with the pressure of working at one place long enough to earn one.

What we do want is to work in an interesting city with cool things to do, beautiful neighborhoods and a vibrant downtown. But you know that. That is, if you have eyes, ears or follow the news, you've heard that Michigan is super obsessed with place-making.

We've learned that college grads gravitate toward great places to live and then find jobs there, and we are determined to make all 276 cities and 257 villages in the state fit that bill.

I can't say how much Michigan has been invested in place-making over the last few years. That's not because I don't know where to look up such information; it's because there are too many numbers to look up. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority is into place-making; so is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The Michigan Municipal League totally digs it, and local governments all over the state are investing in it. Even private companies and independent nonprofits have been sinking time and money into the concept.

But we also need to do more. Like my city employee friend who knew all about how to plan a city where I'd want to live, but not how I'd like to be compensated as an employee, I feel like our rush to attract young talent through place-making addresses only half of the equation.

Young, educated adults do want to live in exciting cities, but we also want to spend less on our health care than we do on our mortgages. Millennials overwhelmingly support universal health care, and yet, here in Michigan, we're watching legislators pushing back against the Affordable Care Act. A significant majority of us are pro-choice, and yet women's access to health care has been under threat at several points over the last year.

And coming from a generation that strongly supports LGBT equality, I know I wasn't the only Millennial Michigander horrified by GOP National Committeeman Dave Agema’s boneheaded remarks about gay people, which drew widespread attention.

These are political opinions, but they are also demographic facts, and we really can't choose to ignore them. Students at MIT may be seeing Pure Michigan commercials, but they're also watching when Jon Stewart airs a clip of former Rep. Lisa Brown being banned from the House floor for saying “vagina.” The message that women in our state can be silenced for standing up for their own rights undoes the benefit of a dozen community place-making projects.

So let's keep going with the great work being done in Michigan in the place-making arena. I truly believe it is making an impact and our state is becoming an even richer, lovelier place. Millennials do like beautiful, active cities, but when we think of our future, we're not thinking about pensions or concerts in the park. We're thinking of living in a place where we have access to affordable health care and everyone enjoys equal rights.

If retaining young talent is truly so important to us, perhaps we should keep in mind, when determining which high-profile social battles to fight, which ones could work against the economic development efforts in which we've invested so well.

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