According to conventional wisdom, if your company wants to attract bright young workers of the millennial generation (those born in the 1980s or 1990s) your workplace should have fun amenities like ping pong tables and maybe be located in a cool restored historic factory. Unfortunately, whoever came up with the conventional wisdom has failed to consult with actual members of that generation. “Yeah, ping pong tables are cool, but what I want is insurance and I want child care,” says Brandon McKoy, a 31-year-old think tank employee and Trenton resident.
McKoy, the director of government and public affairs at New Jersey Policy Perspective, is participating in the New Jersey Future Redevelopment Forum (see above) as a public policy expert and also a member of an age group that is sometimes discussed in condescending terms even by its own members.
In May a 35-year-old Australian real estate tycoon gave an infamous interview to “60 Minutes” in which he blamed a trendy brunch snack for Millennials’ low rates of home ownership: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” he said. “We’re at a point now where the expectations of younger people are very, very high. They want to eat out every day; they want travel to Europe every year.”
McKoy points out that most members of his generation graduated from college during a recession, and into economic factors that were more determinative of their future prospects than their small plate preferences. Ideas put forward to help millennials, such as providing free college education, miss the mark because many of them are well into their 30s by now. (The Pew Research Center recently pegged millennials as those whose birthdates range from 1981 to 1996.)
“A lot of times millennials are discussed in a way that is inaccurate,” he says. “This view of millennials being this purely younger crowd obsessed with phones doesn’t address the real problem.”
For example, McKoy graduated from the College of New Jersey in 2009 with a bachelor’s in social psychology and earned his master’s in city and regional planning at Rutgers’ Bloustein School — the kind of extensive education that is required in today’s economy for most well paying jobs. Like most people, McKoy financed this education with student loans, and like many others he has found this debt has impeded his other life goals.
And McKoy is one of the lucky ones out of his class. Millennials are less likely than previous generations to own homes at the same age, despite being better educated and working longer hours on average.
“I am doing pretty well for my age, but I look at college classmates similar to my age, and I see a lot of underemployment and a lot of people living with three, four, five roommates at the age of 29, 30, or 31,” he says. “The inability to save enough money for a house was not because of eating avocado toast.”
McKoy grew up in South Orange, and his parents owned an insurance agency in New York. After earning his degree in urban planning, he recently got his job with New Jersey Policy Perspective in Trenton, where his wife, Liz Mahn, works as a research associate in the New Jersey Senate Majority Office. Mahn, originally from Minnesota, and McKoy met at the Bloustein School. They tried living in both Maple Shade and New Brunswick before moving to Trenton. “We decided to make it easy on ourselves,” McKoy says.
Many analyses of millennials, and how to make cities appealing to them, point to cultural factors. And there is something to that. Polls show that younger workers like to live in cities rather than the boring suburbs. McKoy said he is psyched about his home city’s first Starbucks, which opened recently and is about a five-minute walk from his house. He also appreciates the ability to walk to nightspots. McKoy has taken the opportunity to put down roots in his community and has joined the board of I Am Trenton, a community group that gives seed grants for community projects.
But economic factors also play a big role. One reason McKoy and his wife chose to buy a home in Trenton’s Mill Hill neighborhood was because of its relative affordability — in the $150,000 range for a two-bedroom, 2.5 bath townhouse. Their house is only about 10 years old but it and its adjoining houses blend in smoothly with the much older brick rowhouses in the area. It’s also more affordable to walk to work than to drive.
“We need affordable housing, to get to work in an affordable way, and be able to access interesting things in an affordable way,” he says.
McKoy says that Trenton faces some challenges in attracting younger people. One factor is Route 1, which carves the city in two and creates a “mental barrier” between downtown and South Trenton, where the baseball stadium and train station are located.
Because of this divide, redevelopment efforts have been split between the two areas. “Trenton Social is honestly maybe a 15-minute walk from the former statehouse, but no one ever considers walking there, just because the way it’s laid out. You have to cross Route 1,” McKoy says.
Trenton’s relative lack of bars and restaurants can make it seem sleepier than Jersey City or other hotspots, but McKoy says the small town feel can actually be an advantage. “Not everybody wants to live in a place that has 50 options of bars,” he says. “Having your 10 places to go to sometimes is very attractive. It’s not an overwhelming choice.”
Trenton is unique in that what happens there is more or less determined by the state government because it is the largest employer and owns so much of the city’s real estate. McKoy says that if the city is to make progress, the state-level leaders who work there will need to spend more time getting to know the capital city.
“I talk to legislators who have been in Trenton for decades, and they don’t know anything about the city,” he says. “They come in on Route 29, go into the garage, and go upstairs.”