Millennials weigh options when deciding whether to stay in Memphis

Cynthia Daniels and two of her volunteers pose for a photo at the 40 under 40 reception. 40 under 40 is an event founded by Daniels in efforts to highlight excellence amongst minority professionals in Memphis.

Millennial is a term used to describe the generation born after Generation X and compares in size to the Baby Boomers, once known as America’s largest generation. But where this generation’s years begin and end vary based on who’s reporting. The U. S. Census bureau classifies Millennials as people born between 1982 and 2000.

In Memphis, with a population size of 656,000, millennials account for 164,000 of the residents in the metropolitan area. Memphis is on several lists for being a millennial hub.

The lists cite everything from the low cost of living, to jobs, restaurants and education reform. However, Memphis also makes some lists that highlight its struggles like crime, poverty and a failing education system.

The graph shows workforce by industry in Memphis. Information sourced by Greater Memphis Chamber and Census Explorer.

With millennials, also known as Generation Y, making up a large percentage of the labor force, large metropolitan cities must attract and retain young people to remain sustainable. This city’s complex socioeconomic factors create varying responses from young Memphians as to whether or not they see themselves in Memphis long-term.

For example, Real estate agent, Tashiona King Stout, 32, form Seattle, Washington moved to Memphis in 2010 with her ex-husband. Since relocating, she’s had two children. She said Memphis is a place full of opportunities that locals tend to overlook.

“I run into a lot of people who feel like, ‘If I aspire to have more, then I have to leave Memphis,’” Stout said. “Instead of thinking… How can I create the jobs and opportunities I want to see’”

However, Stout didn’t always have a positive outlook on life here. It took a while for her to get adjusted. For the first 4 years, she isolated herself and hated the city. Memphis just didn’t appeal to her the way that Seattle did because Memphis lacked scenery  and the outdoor activities in comparison to her hometown.

“I was just like, ‘why am I in this god forsaken city?’” Stout said.

In the midst of being frustrated and depressed about being in Memphis, she found herself praying for answers. That’s when she had an epiphany.

“God was like—what are you doing with the gifts that I gave you? And, that’s when I realized it was my mindset that I needed to change,” Stout said.

Speaking of mindset, Memphis has a saying “Grit and Grind” that describes the ambition of Memphians.

University of Memphis social work professor, Elena Delavega, researches in the areas of poverty, economic development, the relationship between education and capital, capital transformations, and immigration. She said  Memphis is a great city that is perceived as a horrible place.

Delavega described Memphis as a southern city with a rich culture and history, superb local restaurants, excellent tap water and fresh air. She said Memphis just needs to update infrastructure and public transportation to compete with neighboring metropolitan areas for professional Millennials.

“I think two things are going to be crucial to attract millennials,” Delavega said. ” The first thing is investing in the infrastructure. The second thing that we need to do is publicize—and really disseminate information about the good things Memphis has to offer.”

However, Delavega isn’t the only person who realizes that negative perceptions of Memphis are a hindrance for the city. There are several organizations— Choose 901, Memphis for Millennials, New Memphis Institute, and Memphis Young Urban League—all committed to bringing people to Memphis and connecting them to a cause and community. Eldest of the pack,

There are several organizations— Choose 901, Memphis for Millennials, New Memphis Institute, and Memphis Young Urban League—all committed to bringing people to Memphis and connecting them to a cause and community. Eldest of the pack, New Memphis Institute began in 1985 and its focus is on attracting, developing and retaining talent in Memphis and also changing the narrative.

The director of embark and education initiatives at New Memphis Institute, Karen Ware, talked a little bit about the deliberate positive tone her organization uses to describe Memphis in an effort to combat preconceived negative perceptions. She said people can always find something bad about the city but it is rare to hear the positives.

“Part of what New Memphis does is champion Memphis,” Ware said. “And so, what we look for is the things that are going well and the people that are doing great things —and we spotlight those, because it needs to be a very balanced story.”

Ware, leads a program called Embark at New Memphis, specifically designed to develop, activate, and retain talented twentysomethings in Memphis. The program is a three-month leadership development initiative for young professionals gives new residents a sense of purpose and community.

Karen Ware works at her desks at New Memphis Institute. New Memphis works to develop and retain talent in Memphis.

“Primarily what we see is that, to retain people to the city itself, people need to feel like they have opportunities so they can learn and grow,” Ware said. “They also need to feel connected; both to the city itself and also to the other people.”

The program is designed to be diverse racially, professionally, and it’s also mixed with Memphians and transplants. This blend comes from collaborating with other organizations that are working to make a difference in Memphis.

“There’s this idea that there might be a place for me here because I’m looking at all of these awesome people doing great things and I want to be a part of this and part of this city,” Ware said.

Memphis’ challenges create immense opportunities for people looking to make a difference through government, economic and urban development, education, or entrepreneurship.

Recent University of Memphis graduate and Atlanta native, Erika Morton, 23, agreed that people have to get involved to find their place in Memphis. As a child, Morton visited her mom’s side of the family here and she said she chose the U of M to not only attend school but also to really experience Memphis culture.  She admits that she hated Memphis for a while but has since found an affinity for the city by getting involved with local politics. Although she’s found this new love for the city, she can’t see herself settling here.

“I’m going to be honest, when you talk about settling down and raising kids, you can’t do it here,” Morton said. “Because the education system is jacked up.”

Although she doesn’t see herself starting a family here right now, she said that she would definitely move back in the future if Memphis saw tremendous economic growth and enhanced the public education system.

As far as economics go, Memphis has three major corporations—FedEx, International Paper, and AutoZone both as corporate entities and distribution. There’s also a prevalent medical community including St. Jude, Lebonheur, Methodist, and Baptist. However, with a large portion of the population working in distribution, some Memphians feel as though that’s all the city has to offer.

For example, native Memphian, Kiara Davis, 23, recently graduated with a business management degree from Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Like many millennials, she moved back home with her parents after graduation. She had her first child in June and has since been looking for work.

“I’ve been applying for jobs every day all day,” she said while feeding her son. “I have my degree but it’s been really hard to find a job.”

Davis tried working in the hub at FedEx until she could find employment in her field, but that didn’t last long.

“That was hard work!” she exclaimed. “Especially since I just had a c-section, my doctor said it’s not safe for me to be straining like that.”

Davis plans to leave Memphis once her son is old enough to start school.

“I want to move somewhere like Atlanta, Davis said. “I want to own a beauty salon and that’s the place to do it.”

However, experts like Delavega contend that there is no shortage of professional jobs in Memphis—there’s a shortage of qualified talent. She also said the unemployment rate is comparable to other large cities, so she doesn’t see the job market as the problem.

“The job market is actually pretty strong,” Delavega said. “We have a skill gap.”

Ware agrees that the job market is pretty strong but she cites key areas like education, biomedical, distribution, and entrepreneurship.

“So there are plenty of opportunities,” Ware said. “I think it’s more about finding your place and getting your foot in the door.”

Entrepreneurial groups like Start Co. are all over Memphis. Additionally, Bentley University labels millennials the Entrepreneur generation after finding that 66 percent of the people they surveyed desires to start a business. Opportunities to solve problems and support groups make Memphis the perfect entrepreneurial playground according to Morton.

Stout fuels her entrepreneurial spirit through her real estate business, “The Legacy Company.”

Stout wraps up some last minute details before she goes on her business trip. She travels often to invest and acquire real estate.

“Real estate is the vehicle that drives what I do. But when I really look at it—I don’t know,” Stout said passionately. “I just help people solve their problems. I help people to see that there’s potential here in Memphis,”

As a place for personal growth and the only place her children know as home, Stout said she’s happy here.

“I really like Memphis. This is where my children and my business was born,” she said. “I see my business growing here. I enjoy it.”

Although Memphis may be behind other cities in terms of fostering economic growth and attracting millennials, it’s on the right track. The millennials say there are some improvements to be made in education and the economy but otherwise they like it here.

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About the Author

Saundra Nash
As an advocate for social justice, education and entrepreneurship, Saundra is passionate about telling stories that highlight people who are striving in the face of adversity. In her free time, you can find her sipping coffee at the newest local coffee shops while working on starting her own branding agency. Saundra graduates from The University of Memphis in December of 2016.

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