Our 2014 Global Trends Report revealed several new influences shaping downtowns including the growing social equity movement.  Social equity is characterized by a fair and equal opportunity for residents to achieve upward socio-economic mobility.   The most visible indicator of the issue is growing income inequality in America, which is now at its most extreme since the 1920s.  The issue is politically charged and will likely be a defining theme in the upcoming presidential election.

Given the dovetailing interest in social equity, we identified a need for closer examination of the issue in the context of American downtowns.  Specifically, we asked: Does advancing social equity provide tangible economic benefits to a downtown, and if so, how can local leaders defuse this highly volatile issue with economic facts and proven policies? 

Our route to defining economic implications from social equity was long and winding.  There are many, many opinions and studies on the subject, however most are wrapped in the ideological leanings of American think tanks from the right or left.  We had to sift through facts that sometimes led to discounting several sources that initially were promising or inspiring.

We eventually decided to center our economic argument for social equity around the need for downtowns to recruit and retain young skilled talent.  In this period of urban rebirth, many downtowns are no longer struggling to attract new employees or residents.  Instead, they are competing with each other to attract and retain the deepest pool of workforce talent that will fuel their economic engines for decades to come. 

The Millennial generation, composed of young adults born between 1980 and 1995, is now the key demographic in today’s workforce and highly influential over the health of downtown economies.  As of the first quarter of 2015, they are the largest cohort in the American workforce.  They will account for more than one in three U.S. adults by 2020 and will make up as much as 75% of the U.S. workforce by 2025. 

But it is not just their sheer numbers that make them significant.  Over 61 percent of Millennials have attended college, making this generation the most highly educated in American history.  The oldest segment of this generation is just barely established in their adult lives and careers, but their unique preferences and value systems are already transforming the way we live.  If downtown leaders wish to leverage this generation to their best economic advantage, they must understand these preferences and values, and create opportunities for them. 

Millennials are overwhelmingly supportive of progressive policies that promote social justice and equal economic opportunity.  A recent poll conducted for the Youth Engagement Fund and Project New America surveyed Millennial attitudes and opinions on a variety of topics.  When respondents were given a list of values and asked, “Which two issues are most important given the challenges we face as a country?”, “Equality” and “Opportunity” were the leading answers.

In our Global Trends Update, we assess the following key indicators for promoting both social equity and economic vitality in downtowns:

Neighborhoods & Housing | Downtown neighborhoods have housing choices that are affordable, mixed-use, mixed-income, and include a mix of types.

Jobs & Education | Downtown schools, training programs, and job opportunities are high quality and available to all residents.

Mobility | Downtown is walkable, bikeable, and offers affordable and accessible mobility options.

Retail | Downtown retail offerings appeal to a mix of consumers at a variety of price points.

The full report reflects hundreds of hours of research by P.U.M.A.’s intern Liz Munn and associate Liz Gwinn.  Our colleague Michael Berne, president of MJB Consulting, contributed the retail section of the report and has been a steadfast ally in advancing this important issue on the national downtown stage.

Download the full report and let us know what you think.  We will also be presenting and discussing report findings this coming Friday during the International Downtown Association annual conference in San Francisco.