A handful of young adults in Memphis takes endless pride in their city. And they are not afraid to show it by celebrating in Midtown festivals, making Bluff City-inspired art, cheering at Grizzlies games, taking part in local music, and even going as far as getting tattoos of the city skyline.
But despite their admiration, a recent analysis of the nation’s major markets shows Memphis is one of the least desirable places for young adults. It falls at number 93 on a list of 102.
Tom Jones with Smart City Consulting says Memphis needs to take a big picture approach in order to keep and attract 25- to 34-year-olds. Memphis is losing ground in the race for talent, according to Jones, and it will cause the city to have an economy whose workers are low-wage and low-skill.
“From what I hear, there is a large number of young professionals who are unconvinced that Memphis can find the momentum to be one of the country’s great mid-sized cities. They feel that Memphis lacks a vision and the civic will to pursue one. They are often moving to cities that have a “buzz” about them – like Atlanta, Nashville, or Austin,” said Jones who helps produce Smart City Memphis.
As Memphis certainly has notable markers – such as the Greenline, grassroots-driven projects like MemShop, critically-acclaimed restaurants, and a successful entrepreneur scene – that send a powerful message to people outside the Mid-South, Jones says other cities are doing the same things.
“We have to find something that leap frogs Memphis ahead of them and symbolizes our authentic character. Otherwise, we are simply running in place and staying in the same relative position when it comes to attracting 25- [to] 34-year-old, college-educated workers,” he said. “Memphis shouldn’t beat itself up too badly because only about a dozen cities are soaking up most of these workers. What makes Memphis different is that when compared to the 51 largest [Metropolitan Statistical Areas] in the U.S., it has an anomaly when it comes to the percentage of the population under 18. It tops the list for youths. It’s why it makes it so important for better educational outcomes for our students. While other cities are competing for talent, we have that talent in our classrooms today … but there’s a big if … If we can educate them for the knowledge jobs of the future.”
Lucy Dean is a 21-year-old Management Information Systems major at the University of Memphis who grew up in the city. Plenty of jobs in her industry are available in the city, but she says she plans on leaving after she graduates next year.
Her desire to move is not because she has negative feelings toward Memphis. She wants to experience other parts of the United States or even just East Tennessee.
“I’d really love to move to the west coast like Portland or to somewhere in Colorado. Both of those places are full of character … Lots of new and different things to do that Memphis doesn’t offer,” said Dean.
Dean says her peers share similar thoughts, but they do not seem in a rush to leave the city. She thinks Memphis is a great place for people her age, and for those who are not native to the city – she understands why they would want to stay.
While some young adults are leaving Memphis – or planning to – others are moving in the city.
Stephanie Ward has lived in different areas in New England and the West Coast, and she moved to Memphis after starting with a company in Pittsburg. Working in loss prevention for that company, Ward could have held her position at multiple places – but she chose the Bluff City.
“I moved to Memphis for a mixture of reasons. It was both work and wanting to be near family. I’m from three hours north of [Memphis] in Missouri,” she said. “I was ready to experience something new. I had been downtown once before and loved the Beale Street feel. I love the Midtown area of Memphis. It’s got such a welcoming feel to it. I’ve traveled and lived a lot of places, and Midtown Memphis seems to be a place you can go out, and it’s not judgmental.”
Ward admits Memphis seems to be a rough city. And as she still has perks for the city, she does not plan to stay in Memphis permanently.
“I love others more. I have lived in New York and loved it. My hope is to continue to move up in my company and end up back in New York or back in Los Angles,” she said.
Considering the age range and the chase in the career hunt, many young adults will leave Memphis solely because of job-related reasons. Anyone that uses a social media account in the Memphis network knows that some people do not share any respect for the city. Some of those people do leave, and others just stay and keep complaining despite the city’s poverty, crime, and education system is a work in progress.
Many residents will say, including Jones, that Memphis is a gritty city, and some people are not suited for it. But those people who are suited for it, they will fight for the city.
“If you can’t find something to love about this city it is because you’re not trying. I am consistently surprised by the diversity and scope of our music scene here in Memphis, and by the quality of musicianship happening here,” said local musician Michael Jasud. “And as a musician I know that when my music is exported, the fact that it came from Memphis will mean something to people.”
Like most young adults, Jasud would take the opportunity to travel the world. He tours around the United States often with his Americana and bluegrass band from Memphis called Dead Soldiers.
He says one thing Memphis has that many other cities do not: a sense of identity and history.
“Memphis is a powerful brand, and the sooner we can let go of the self pitying negativity that seems to plague so many people here … The sooner we can take control of our narrative and our identity and use it to address our problems,” said Jasud. “This is a big dynamic and important city that is still evolving, but it is small enough that one person can still make a real impact. Our culture may not be cutting edge and hip, and that’s fine. The ‘Portlands’ and ‘Austins’ have that covered.”
As many groups in Memphis advocate for productivity in the city and work to attract new residents, Jones says Memphis leadership needs to be more receptive to new ideas from young professionals. He says giving these men and women meaningful ways to be involved and funding their creative ideas will improve the community.
“We need to send the message to these 25- [to] 34-year-olds that we need them,” he said. “And if they remain here or move here, they will be part of something important because if we can fight for Memphis and succeed … We can prove that cities like ours have futures.”