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Millennials are fueling Greenville’s population growth and delighting employers, while presenting unique challenges
That Greenville’s population is growing is no surprise to anyone who travels on its crowded roads and sees the glut of construction cranes that dot Greenville’s skyline.
What may come as a surprise is who is fueling that growth.
Millennial population growth over the past five years in Greenville County has outpaced that of Generation X (those born from 1965 to 1980), and far outpaced baby boomers, the post-World War II generation born between 1946 and 1964.
The same is true for Spartanburg County, where the five-year percent change showed growth at nearly 3 percent for millennials and decreases of 2.2 percent for Gen X and 4.5 percent for baby boomers, according to the Asheville-based SYNEVA Economics, a consulting firm that focuses on local and regional analysis.
“Here in Asheville, and it’s true of Greenville, we took for granted that it was the baby boomers [fueling the growth],” said Tom Tveidt, SYNEVA’s research economist. “Over the past five years, the millennial generation has overtaken the baby boomers as the major source of population change.”
Who are they?
The millennial generation, generally considered to be people born between 1980 and 2000, is the biggest in U.S. history – eclipsing the baby boom – and unlike any generation that has come before them.
Some researchers divide the millennial demographic into two groups: Generation Y and Generation Z.
Both have grown up with the Internet and smartphones, are technically savvy, and are more diverse and more educated than past generations. Millennials are less likely to be married than previous generations at the same age, more likely to live with their parents and less likely to live in their own household.
The oldest millennials were just 27 years old when the Great Recession hit in late 2007. While the economy is recovering, the recession hit this generation hard and still does. Millennials typically have less money to spend than past generations at the same age due to lower employment levels, higher debt and smaller incomes.
But millennials are the generation that will shape the economy for decades to come.
The millennial generation is very important to employers, Tveidt said.
“Millennials are typically the group [potential] employers who are looking at an area ask about, and that means you have to get into affordable housing and building communities in which people want to raise their families,” he said. “I tell people it’s a good problem to have. There are plenty of communities that are losing jobs, and companies are moving out.”
Ryan Heafy, 30, had never heard of Greenville before ADEX Machining Technologies tapped him to help develop the company into an aerospace manufacturing facility.
“I found it by mistake,” said Heafy, who is CEO of IMAGINEXT Solutions and a partner in Switch Image Concepts. Greenville struggles with brand identity and what makes it special and unique to millennials, he said. “I didn’t know Greenville existed. We’re not there recruiting millennials, we’re out there recruiting manufacturers.”
Looking for same features
A 2014 American Planning Association report says both the millennial generation and retirees prioritize quality-of-life amenities above most other factors when choosing where they will live.
“Quality of life features such as transportation options, affordability, parks, local vitality, health and presence of friends and family are equally or often more important. By a near 2-to-1 margin, respondents believe that investing in communities, over recruiting companies, is the key to growth,” the report said.
Jessica Pate, a member of the advisory board of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s young professional group PULSE, said she decided to attend college and start her working career in Greenville due to the city’s efforts over the past 10 to 15 years to make downtown inviting.
“My parents went to Furman but I said, ‘No, I’m not following you to the same school.’ I applied to 14 schools and Greenville and Furman was actually what I wanted despite me not wanting to follow my parents,” she said. “Downtown, the energy, the community is so well developed. I’m an Army brat and I never really had a place that felt like home until Greenville.”
Housing options in downtown Greenville are expanding. Some of the city’s fastest-growing areas as indicated by the latest Census numbers are in the neighborhoods that surround downtown, popular with young professionals who are looking for starter homes or can’t afford the rents in the central business district.
Entertainment, music and food options are increasing as well, although some millennials think more are needed.
Greenville can compete
“Greenville is small and growing, but on any single day it can compete with any other city in terms of its offerings,” said Drew Dezen, a 27-year-old public relations professional who grew up in Greenville, worked in Australia for nearly three years and then moved back. “It doesn’t have the breadth of offerings of some other communities, but it can compete on a single day.”
Dezen said the chance to make a difference was one opportunity that attracted him back to Greenville.
“If you’re 27 and living in New York City, you really have to do something big to make an impact,” he said. “In Greenville, your impact is tangible. It’s very intriguing to be a part of the generation that can shape Greenville’s future.”
Heafy said Greenville “needs to give millennials a purpose … the next big thing, a catalyst project they can get behind, a movement and identity they can embody, something that will act as a tool that they can use to continue to share the message about Greenville and use as an example of why others would also want to move or locate here.”
Today’s millennials “don’t see anything they can get behind,” he said. “Greenville has a rapidly growing population of millennials and we need to be sure that we bridge the gap between older generations and the new population to help drive smart growth in our city. But we also need to be sure that we’re innovative enough to retain the millennials that move here. Recruitment and retention need to be considered together.”
Heafy said Greenville needs an identity to set it apart from other places in the eyes of millennials.
“Greenville could be a leader in autonomous transportation or the Internet of Things or have the most powerful open Wi-Fi network downtown with working spaces in public places for the new and growing mobile workforce,” he said.
Dezen agrees that marketing is key for Greenville’s growth. “You want the best and brightest in the fabric of the community,” he said. “I think millennials are critical in shaping Greenville. Greenville is evolving, changing and improving every day. We’ve made great strides. There’s still work to do. It’s not an overnight thing, but I’m proud of our community.”
Pate said Greenville “needs to keep doing what it’s doing well. It needs to continue to be affordable and traversable and not be incredibly overcrowded. We want to make sure that Greenville continues to improve, but that it doesn’t fundamentally change from what it is now.”
Today UBJ continues a community dialogue begun in the Greenville Journal, exploring the changes, opportunities and choices we all face as #GreenvilleGrows.
Our region capitalizes on assets like innovative public-private partner- ships, a thriving retail and hospitality environment, and continued expansion of the downtown housing market, with seemingly never-ending construction. But we must also deal with challenges like an aging infrastructure, gentrification, parking shortages and workforce education.