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Although southwestern Pennsylvania is still one of the oldest regions in the nation, profound shifts in domestic migration and other factors are steadily washing away the gray, finally putting to rest the decades-old notion that it had become a place young people would rather flee than be.
The region’s population of 20-34-year-olds grew by seven percent over the past five years, and it is expected to grow another eight percent by 2020, according to an economic forecasting model run by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR).
It’s a stunning reversal of fortunes for a region that three decades earlier was losing 50,000 more people than it was attracting each year with young adults accounting for most of them.
When the One Young World summit came to Pittsburgh in October, the 1,300 international millennials who attended found a city and region that has steadily grown younger – a trend that has important implications for southwestern Pennsylvania today and in the future.
Several of the City of Pittsburgh’s oldest neighborhoods are being transformed as young adults move in at impressive rates. More people are moving to the region than leaving each year and most are young adults. The region’s 25-34-year-old workforce has become one of the best educated in America, which is a competitive advantage when trying to grow an economy. And the surge in young talent is helping take the edge off concerns about the future depth and breadth of the workforce as more and more Baby Boomers age into retirement.
These young adults are also the most frequent users of the region’s revenue-hungry public transit system. They’re strong supporters of the arts at the box office. Nearly 60 percent live in homes either they or their families own. And nearly half of young adults in the region earn at least $50,000 a year and 22 percent earn $75,000 or more, according to the Greater Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Study, a joint project of PittsburghTODAY and UCSUR.
The belief that southwestern Pennsylvania has a problem retaining and attracting young adults that’s more severe than in other regions in the country had become a mantra, a local truism that is no longer true and hasn’t been for quite some time.
A ‘myth’ debunked
It dates to the early 1980s when the catastrophic collapse of the steel industry triggered an exodus of young adults that was truly alarming. At its peak in 1984, some 50,000 residents left and more than 70 percent of them were under the age of 39. Not only did they leave, they also took their families and future families with them. In doing so, they reshaped the demographic makeup of the region in ways that continue to be seen today in a population that is older than most and experiences more deaths each year than births.
But the crisis was short-lived. In 1994, the region posted a net migration loss of fewer than 9,000 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And young people made up a much smaller portion of those who departed, while retirees accounted for a larger share.
Southwestern Pennsylvania continued to recover. And after 2008, more people have moved into the region than left – a trend that continues today and has helped stabilize the Pittsburgh MSA population, which continues to experience more deaths than births each year due to its still-oversized number of elderly residents.
The majority of new arrivals are well under the age of 40 and the greatest numbers are leaving nearby metropolitan areas such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC in favor of living and working in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“It’s not a recent phenomena that you can say it isn’t true that young people are leaving Pittsburgh any more than you would expect,” said Chris Briem a regional economist at UCSUR. “But there’s a persistence of memory in Pittsburgh. If you’re older and have memories of when young people were streaming out you’re probably going to believe that until you die.”
Employment opportunities lead most people to move from other places and settle in another. In southwestern Pennsylvania, a diverse economy led by medicine, technology, research and education that emerged in the wake of steel’s collapse is a key reason why more people are moving in than moving out. The fields attracting the most are the life, physical and social sciences, computer and mathematical, architecture and engineering and healthcare, according to an UCSUR analysis of 2006-2010 American Community Survey data.
Moreover, the new arrivals filling those jobs are largely young workers. Some 70 percent of workers new to the region are under the age of 35 and more than 55 percent are between the ages of 22 and 34. Only about four percent of workers who lived outside the region a year ago are 55 or older.
Another important factor in the steady rise in young adults is the fact the region’s economy has weathered the recent recession and sluggish recovery better than most others. Job growth, while not robust, has been steady. And the Pittsburgh MSA is the only region among the 15 tracked by PittsburghTODAY to experience overall job growth over the past five years.
Much of that growth is in professions that demand a high level of education. And that is reflected in the region’s workforce. More than 48 percent of its workers aged 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s fifth highest in the nation, behind Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Austin, according to Current Population Survey data compiled by the Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There’s no question that jobs and opportunity are what attract people,” said Timothy Parks, director of business development at the Pittsburgh law firm of Morgan Lewis, who during the 1990s was director of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. “People usually don’t move to a city just to try it out. What we’re seeing today is the result of Pittsburgh having become a multi-faceted landscape of opportunity.”
A lust for city life
Young adults also find other characteristics of the region attractive. In focus groups held by PittsburghTODAY last summer, the region’s relatively low cost of living, universities, and cultural and recreational amenities were most often identified as its strongest attributes by young adults, regardless of their level of education or whether they were natives of southwestern Pennsylvania or transplants from other cities and regions.
Transportation issues, such as access to buses and taxis when needed, topped the list of the most commonly mentioned weaknesses, which is not surprising. Residents aged 18 to 34 are twice as likely than other residents to use public transportation, according to data reported in the Greater Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey.
After leaving Washington, D.C. in 2012 for a job at the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney, Celia Franklin, 26, chose to sign a lease at the Heinz Lofts on the North Shore. “I wanted a place on the bus line that was close enough to walk to work,” she said. “I also wanted to be in a young neighborhood, not in the suburbs. And being close to the river and trail is exciting.”
Studies suggest her generation is much more likely to prefer living in a walkable, vibrant, diverse urban community than older generations. And they are changing Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. The city’s 18-to-24-year-olds rose 17 percent from 2000 to 2010 in the city. Fifty neighborhoods saw an increase. And in 32 of them, the young adult population rose by 10 percent or more. “Most demographic shifts are pretty evolutionary. They happen over a long time and you tend to notice them a decade after they happen,” Briem said. “There is nothing subtle or slow about what we are seeing in some of these neighborhoods.”