Population decline is a problem several small communities, including Wayne County, face as local leaders try to solve this downward trend. One strategy that has become prominent in recent years is attracting and retaining young professionals. Younger generations are notorious for trading the small-town lifestyle for the big city as they either head to college or pursue other professional opportunities.

Trying to bring young people back to communities like Wayne County is easier said than done. Understanding the motivations and ambitions of Millennials and Gen Z can prove tiresome. As Forward Wayne County highlights local young professionals throughout January, this blog will cover strategies to help small towns attract and retain younger generations.

A Crazy Idea?

It is hard to compete with the opportunities and amenities offered by larger cities, which has contributed to younger generations leaving small towns. Several studies have noted this trend, with a Gallup poll showing that most 18- to 29-year-olds prefer suburban metros while indicating older generations prefer a rural environment. The same study found the 30–49-year-old group (which comprises some Millennials) split in their preference of urban and rural.   

However, there has been a slight shift in the paradigm in recent years. This is due to several historical events like the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Gallup Poll above showed 30% of Millennials would rather live in a small town. Another survey conducted by the Harris Poll indicated that 39% of people living in urban areas considered migrating to smaller towns during the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

This topic has also been at the forefront of local policymakers’ minds. A Politico study found that 85% of American mayors viewed attracting Millennials as a top 10 priority. Several incentives, like Make My Move, have been created at the state level to help smaller towns.

Getting Started

So, there is hope for Indiana small towns yet, as attracting and retaining a younger demographic is not impossible. It requires time and investment in innovative strategies to attract the younger crowd. Younger generations have different motivations and values than older audiences. Any method used by a small town should consider that circumstance.

As a quick note, this post was written by a member of Gen Z, so keep this in mind when reading through each strategy.  

Offer Opportunities and Growth

One fact about young professionals is that they are ambitious and hungry for professional opportunities. Young professionals thrive on opportunities for professional development and are constantly looking for ways to fast-track their careers. Several studies have shown millennials and Gen Zers are open to job hopping, with their average times at a single position hovering above two years.

Smaller communities need to find ways to offer those opportunities to young professionals, and this is something that can go down to the organizational level. Local organizations should look for ways to help their younger employees find avenues for professional development. Here in Wayne County, that may look like getting them involved with an organization like HYPE or finding other local development opportunities with places like Ivy Tech or IU East.

Offering those pathways can help young professionals become more established in the community while fulfilling their need for growth. It can also let them know their organization values them and their career progression.

Co-working spaces could be a unique opportunity to explore. They could allow young professionals to collaborate with people from different professions. There is already one with the Main Street Resource Center providing this opportunity. 

Offer Amenities

Big cities offer a lot of amenities, whether they be entertainment or shopping options. On the other hand, smaller communities can provide a great deal in this area. When attracting or retaining young professionals, it is imperative to highlight local amenities, and this should go beyond the typical ones. Prospective residents need to see another side of the community that is only sometimes shown.

There is a deep history and character present in places like Wayne County. For example, this area has a vibrant arts scene and a robust trail system. Those factors can easily apply to younger generations. Another factor that can also help is Wayne County’s proximity to many metropolitan areas, offering the opportunity to experience the big city lifestyle.

Young professionals have their own ideas on what they want to see in amenities. Some amenities may include more local restaurants, infrastructure for other nonvehicular modes of transportation, and more opportunities for entertainment and retail. This is an endless list with unlimited possibilities, but it is essential to understand what younger generations would like to see.

Main Streets and Small Businesses

Main Streets and small businesses are the hearts of some smaller communities. They provide economic vitality plus access to entertainment and shopping amenities. Having an active Main Street and small business sector is a great way to attract young professionals as they have been drawn to these areas.

A robust small business sector can give the added benefit of attracting young entrepreneurs. Local governments could create programming to incentivize those individuals.

Having a variety of businesses would be a great way to connect to young professionals. Sometimes, smaller communities are anchored by one type of local business. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, having a variety would provide more options.

Accept News Ideas

Younger generations differ quite from older ones in values and motivations. When trying to attract young professionals, smaller communities and local organizations will need to be open to new ideas from the younger crowd. This is a simple way to help them feel valued, but it also allows organizations to grow accustomed to hiring young professionals.

Community Involvement

Young professionals may feel disconnected from a smaller community, especially if new to it. Getting them involved and out in the community is a great way to help them feel more at home and become more acquainted with the town. It can also help them connect more with people with the same interests.

Wayne County is lucky in that the opportunities for community involvement are readily abundant. There is even an active young professional group in the form of HYPE. This strategy should be about connecting young workers with other members of their group to show them they are not alone.

Local governments and organizations should consider having young professionals on a board. This will get them involved and give some new perspectives in the community. In the long run, this method will help them become more established.

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