In the Wall Street Journal this week, Joel Kotkin once again seemed like a man with an opinion in search of a statistic. We normally disregard his trenchant complaints – although we have decided that Richard Florida must have poisoned his dog – but since he seemed to refer to our “Young and Restless” research and to Memphis as a place that has “danced to the tune of the hip and the cool, yet largely remain wallflowers in terms of economic and demographic growth,” it’s hard to stay quiet.

First off, if we’ve been in a dance, it’s been an awfully strange one. More often than not, Memphis barely acknowledges the factors that can attract and retain young professionals, much less try to get out on the floor with strategies to address what they want and need.

As we’ve often noted, it didn’t have to be this way, since Memphis was the pioneer in the talent issue that is now on every city’s agenda. It’s ironic that five years from the time that we applied Richard Florida’s research to Memphis – pre-publication of his incredibly popular book, Rise of the Creative Class – to produce the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, he’ll be back in town next week to talk to the Regional Chamber’s annual meeting.

The year after the Talent Magnet Report, Mr. Florida was back in Memphis to co-host with Carol Coletta the Memphis Manifesto Summit that she developed. More than 125 “creatives” from across the U.S. were involved in crafting a manifesto for cities wanting to attract them. The document has been widely used and is included in the paperback copies of Mr. Florida’s book.

The bad news is that we’re still listening to speeches and too little has been done, but the good news is that there is a heightened understanding of the importance of this issue, and better still, there’s a expanding cadre of young, active leaders who are anxious to have a say in shaping our city’s destiny.

While it’s tempting to wring our hands over five lost years which could have been used to put Memphis firmly on the forefront of this issue, it’s more productive for us to use Mr. Florida’s speech as a wake-up call for what we’ve now known for five years – to be competitive in the global economy, we have to produce, recruit and retain young talent.

But, back to Mr. Kotkin’s column in the Wall Street Journal this week, he was customarily dismissive of this emphasis on young professionals. Settling more and more intohis role as the Ozzie Nelson of urban commentators, he says that cities’ attention to young urban single professionals is misplaced, and success is about about families and the suburbs. Actually, we’re not aware of a city that’s checking marriage licenses at the door before clearing singles to enter, but he missed the point, as Carol Coletta points out in her blog at CEOs for Cities:

In his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, “The Rise of Family-Friendly Cities,” Joel Kotkin sets up an either/or set of economic development and lifestyle choices that simply doesn’t exist.

Where, exactly, does Kotkin think these married couples he extols come from?

Hint: The median age of first marriage among all U.S. women is now 26, older for college-educated women. A typical young woman today spends at least five years after college, usually pursuing a career, before a first marriage. By the time she’s in her late 20s or early 30s she — and her partner–have typically put down roots in a particular metropolitan area.

The reason Raleigh and Charlotte score so well in gaining families is that they are the biggest gainers of younger, well-educated adults, particularly singles.
It is plainly a lot easier to hang on to the young adults who live in your city rather than recruiting them from other places. That’s why cities should pay particular attention to young singles when they are at their most mobile and also build on their family friendliness as a way of retaining these talented and energetic people.

But does being family friendly require a fundamentally different set of urban attributes? Not really.

Schools certainly move up on the priority list. But in a national survey of college-educated 25 to 34 year-olds for CEOs for Cities, we found that the top five attributes they seek in cities are these: clean and attractive; opportunity to live the life I want to lead; safe; green; and availability of the type of housing I want at an affordable price. That sounds pretty family-friendly to me.

And does anyone really believe that one loses one’s taste for latte when one starts pushing a stroller?

We can do a lot more to advance the discussion about the kind of community attributes that we all value – singles and married couples alike – without creating phony and divisive distinctions.

Family-friendly cities are not terribly different from other cities. Ask business and civic leaders around the nation what’s driving their concern about whether their city appeals to young people, and they will first tell you they are needed for the labor force. But what really worries many of them hits much closer to home. They worry their own kids won’t return after college. Being family-friendly has a lot of surprising dimensions.