Want to Know Why Millennials Are Ditching New Jersey? Ask Them

'Millennial town hall' gives generation 'M' a chance to sound off on what they like about New Jersey (proximity to NYC, recreation) and what they don't (costly housing, few mass-transit options)

Participants in the Millennial Town Hall (from left): Mateus Baptista, Ron Bautista, Magdala Cherry, Caliean Kok, Brandon McKoy of Trenton
As more and more millennials move out of New Jersey, business leaders worried about the state’s economic future have been looking for ways to stem the migration. But part of the problem is beyond the reach of business: New Jersey’s residential communities are hardly a magnet for millennials, who generally prefer living in walkable towns with access to mass transit.

Figuring out ways to make the state’s communities, whether they are aging suburbs or redeveloping urban areas, more appealing to young professionals was a key topic of discussion during a recent conference on redevelopment issues that was organized by New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group that encourages smart planning.

In fact, one of the sessions held during the daylong event in New Brunswick was billed as a “millennial town hall,” and it featured a panel made up entirely of young professionals who shared their own experiences. The event was also moderated by a millennial, and many in attendance were from that generation, providing a true flavor of the issues millennials are facing as they consider whether it makes sense to put down roots in the Garden State.

The panelists generally praised New Jersey, saying cultural diversity and the easy connections to New York and Philadelphia, along with recreational opportunities at the Shore and nearby mountains, are key features. But they also raised concerns about affordability, wages, quality of mass transit, and education. And while many perceive millennials as being primarily college students, most are actually now launching careers, and are beginning to consider things like marriage, home ownership, and starting a family.

“Our stories aren’t that different from the generations before us,” said Caliean Kok, a professional planner from Newark who served as one of the panelists.

Millennials as a group are generally defined as having been born between 1980 and 2000, and there are an estimated 70 million nationally. They are considered to be the best-educated generation, which is why companies have been flocking to places where millennials are living – and why New Jersey’s business leaders are trying to figure out how to keep more of them here.

Still living at home

While millennials have come of age during a time of incredible technological advancement, many face huge financial challenges due to today’s high cost of college tuition and student loans. That means many millennials don’t yet own a car or a home, and in New Jersey, nearly half of the state’s millennials are still living with their parents, even though more than 65 percent are employed.

Recent research conducted by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association also found millennials are leaving the state at a higher rate than any other group, including seniors. And according to New Jersey Future’s own demographic research, the state’s millennial population declined by 2 percent between 2000 and 2013, even as the millennial population nationally increased by 6 percent.

Concern over costly housing

During the millennial town hall held in New Brunswick on Friday, the affordability of the housing in many New Jersey communities was one of the top concerns was raised by panelists. Magdala Chery, a practicing physician and associate professor of medicine at Rowan University-School of Osteopathic Medicine, said she thinks about starting a family and getting involved in the community, but cost is a primary issue.

“Maybe I can’t stay in New Jersey because I can’t afford it,” said Chery, who currently lives in Glassboro. “What’s going to happen next?”

New Jersey is not alone when it comes to affordable-housing struggles, but in states like Massachusetts, policymakers have also begun to encourage the building of units classified as “workforce housing” that cater specifically to young professionals.

Another big issue for New Jersey’s housing is “price-point diversity,” according to Carl Goldberg, a longtime developer and the co-chair of Rutgers University’s Center for Real Estate who recently wrote a newspaper opinion piece that suggested there are redevelopment opportunities if community leaders in New Jersey can reimagine things like aging, suburban office parks.

“Millennials want to have that live, work, play environment,” Goldberg said in a phone interview. “If there’s no place for them to live, they can’t stay.”

Often linked closely to the issue of housing in New Jersey is transportation, particularly for millennials who don’t own cars and rely on trains and buses to get around. In fact, at one point during Friday’s panel discussion, Kok joked about now being able to own a car, but how she still has share it with her husband, which requires coordinating their work schedules on a daily basis.

“I think access to transportation is huge,” she said.

Ron Bautista, a former mayoral candidate from Hoboken, stressed the need to improve mass transit, suggesting services like bus-rapid transit, which uses dedicated bus lanes to speed up commutes, can be part of the solution. He also encouraged policymakers to think about how they are marketing their communities, in general, such as as a transit village that’s attractive to young professionals.

“There’s also the branding (issue), if you will, and what you’re projecting as a state, and as a city,” Bautista said.

Mateus Baptista, a Newark native who serves as program officer for the Victoria Foundation, a city-based philanthropic organization, also raised the issues of job creation and urban education as key factors for New Jersey communities that are looking to attract young professionals.

“Until we figure out the jobs piece, it’s hard to recruit folks early in their careers to New Jersey,” he said.

Improving urban schools can keep millennials from leaving the state’s cities for other locations as they begin to have children of their own, while also boosting educational outcomes for a city’s existing residents, Baptista said.

Meanwhile, several panelists also stressed that there is already much to like about New Jersey. They identified extensive cultural diversity, rich history, and a generally good geographic location, as the state’s key assets. But Brandon McKoy, a Trenton resident who serves as director of government and public affairs at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a city-based think tank, urged the new administration of Gov. Phil Murphy to develop and follow a strategic-growth plan if it wants the state to be an attractive place for millennials. That’s something that didn’t really occur during former Gov. Chris Christie’s eight-year tenure, he said.

“We have a geographic location that is the envy of everybody else,” McKoy said. “Invest in our assets.”