Cover Story

Optimistic State?

Young Professionals and the Future of Massachusetts

Greg Torres, president of MassINC, said that, when it comes to the latest study completed by the nonprofit research entity he leads, the proof is in the statistics, and the devil is in the details.

“We make it a practice to look at specific demographic groups and their attitudes, and in turn to look at how the economics of the state stack up, given those attitudes,” he said. “But we don’t make any specific recommendations. We frame the problem and get the research out.”

The latest group studied by MassINC is one that has not been examined closely in the past — young adults in the Commonwealth, ages 25 to 39. The study, titled Great Expectations: A Survey of Young Adults in Massachusetts, delves into this demographic’s views and priorities, with the goal of evaluating what impact these perceptions have on the Massa-chusetts economy.

“There is plenty of research on Boomers, but very little looking at young adults,” said Torres, adding that what the study found was in parts surprising — including a high level of positive thinking regarding the state and its future — and intriguing, such as the discovery of an equally high level of cynicism when it comes to state and federal government.

It also touched upon a disparity in opinions and concerns between different types of residents — those who moved here versus those who were born and raised in the Bay State, for instance, or those living in Greater Boston versus those in southeastern, central, and western communities.

In this issue, BusinessWest takes a closer look at Great Expectations, as well as how it relates — and does not relate — to the pressing issues of Western Mass.

A Case for Education

Torres noted that studies like Great Expectations are research-heavy and light on specific recommendations. However, the statistics presented become important tools for regional employment boards and other economic-development entities across the state as they implement new programs to better the Commonwealth’s economic outlook and retain its young population.

The need to get a finger on the pulse of this age group has become doubly important, Torres added, due to the growing emphasis on the Commonwealth’s knowledge-based economy. It’s a big piece of discussions surrounding the potential for Massachusetts to lead the country in areas such as life sciences and biotechnology, but on a broader scale, education has a marked impact on economic stability, and today’s young-adult population is a more educated group on the whole than the any other, both regionally and nationally. According to Great Expectations, about 46% of this group has earned a college degree or higher, 49% earn $50,000 or more annually, and 54% own a home.

“When you look at education levels and the extent to which young people are doing well economically, there’s a direct tie-in,” said Torres. “A high-school diploma used to be the standard, but all of our research suggests that a college degree is now the key.”

There are other trends, Torres continued, that are perhaps more intangible than the education piece, but no less intriguing. The largest common denominator among the young adult set, he said, was an undercurrent of optimism regarding the future.

“We were struck by that,” Torres said. “The optimism that was reflected regarding their economic standing and that of their children surprised us a little bit, especially with the economic storm clouds on the horizon and no real wage growth over the last decade.

“It struck us that, as a group, young adults are pretty confident that they’ll be able to do better moving forward,” Torres continued. “They believe they’ll be able to increase their economic standing.”

The Cynical Side of the Street

There is a downside to this optimism, however — not only are young adults upwardly mobile, they’re not averse to taking their talents elsewhere if they feel they’re not reaching the heights they’re capable of in the Bay State, an already historically expensive place to live.

“Twenty percent are saying if they can’t get a handle on costs in Massachusetts, they would consider leaving in the next five years,” said Torres. “We’re a high-cost state, and there’s no getting around that. It’s not going to change in any immediate sense.”

Even more specifically, Torres said, Great Expectations reveals that this demographic has a greater respect for and confidence in the private sector, and a lack of confidence in public sector.

“This offers us some interesting insight that we intend to focus on,” he said. “What this means is that the majority of young adults in Massachusetts believe that solutions to problems like environmental issues are going to be driven by creative work in the private sector, and further, that confidence is low in public sectors.”

He said that while some political candidates, including Gov. Deval Patrick and presidential candidate Barack Obama, have successfully tapped into the overriding optimism of young adults on the campaign trail, MassINC’s research offers an opportunity to delve further into the potential pitfalls of low confidence in state and federal government.

“The less confident the population, the higher the rates of non-participation,” he said. “People who don’t believe the public sector can do what needs to be done are less likely to vote, and support for taxes goes down. We hope to explore politics more so candidates can reflect on it — and, in general terms, we need more of a balance between public and private sectors.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Anita Dancs, an economics professor at Western New England College, agreed that the attitudes of this demographic have an impact on the state’s economic outlook, as well as some of its existing realities, including in the political arena.

“It caught my attention that this group is so cynical about government; I wonder what future impact that could have,” she said. “They’ve heard all through their lives that government fails, but I do find that a concern, because there is a role for government to play, especially in terms of the race with the rest of the world.”

However, Dancs added that she takes certain aspects of the MassINC report with a grain of salt, particularly when applied to Western Mass., which is working to clear its own hurdles that differ from those in other parts of the state.

For one, she said, the high percentage of optimism could be colored by certain variables.

“I think the first thing we need to realize is that this is an age group that is in the prime of their lives,” she said. “Buying a home, starting a family, advancing in a career … these are all things that are happening to these people because of their life stage, and they’re hopeful.”

More specifically, the optimism reflected in the report is driven in part by people who have moved to Massachusetts because of the better, knowledge-driven jobs in Greater Boston,” Dancs said, referencing one of three groups, ‘the Imports,’ into which the surveyed demographic is broken in Great Expectations.

According to the report, 37% of the 25-to-39 demographic represent this sub-group — those who grew up outside of Massachusetts and relocated. The remainder consists of ‘the Boomerangs,’ 23% of the total, who grew up in Massachusetts but have lived outside of the state for a year or more before returning, and ‘the Homegrowns,’ the largest percentage of young adults at 40%, who have not lived outside of the Commonwealth for a significant period of time.

“If you take apart the report a little more and look at the homegrowns, this is the group that is more representative of Western Mass.,” said Dancs. “There’s more concern over finances in this group and more concern over availability of jobs. In Western Mass., wages tend to be lower, and we have fewer high-paying technical jobs.”

Indeed, the MassINC study states that “imports are the most satisfied with the way things are going for them.” The majority are college graduates (60%), while only 32% of Homegrowns have an advanced degree. Further, three-quarters of Imports work in professional or managerial jobs, compared to 41% of Homegrowns. Finally, 71% of the Imports live in Greater Boston.

Dancs went on to note that some pervasive economic issues also run contrary to the positive view many young adults have of their own futures and that of the state; it just may take longer for these effects to be felt within the surveyed population.

“It’s likely that a recession will be coming on, and economic indicators aren’t looking very promising,” she said. “There are also a few general, national trends that Massachusetts follows that need to be taken into account; optimism may exist, but income inequality is also growing tremendously. Massachusetts had the third-largest income-inequality growth in nation in last two decades.

“There’s also income instability,” Dancs continued. “People’s wages go up and down more than those of their grandparents or parents, and we also know that weekly earnings are lower than in the 1970s in real terms. There’s something about this report that flies in the face of economic reality.”

Great Expectations does state that outside of Greater Boston, the survey population focuses on a different set of concerns than their Hub-based counterparts. For one, those in the Boston area cite high costs of living as a primary worry, while others — particularly Homegrowns — speak to the need for job creation.

Offering this research to be applied to new or existing programs to augment the Commonwealth’s young workforce is one of MassINC’s primary goals, according to Torres; however, in areas where problems such as high unemployment and high-school dropout rates already exist, including in many locales of Western Mass., the approach employment organizations and departments must take is not so straight-forward as reading the statistics and trying to reflect them.

Rather, in many ways, these findings represent an ideal that may exist within much of the 25- to 39-year-old age group now, but could easily wane if the economy continues its downward trend, or if younger populations are not educated on their options and offered opportunities by assistance agencies, schools, and employers alike.

Tomorrow’s Adults,

Today’s Concern

Melissa Scibelli, manager of Youth Projects with the Hampden County Regional Employment Board (REB), said she works primarily with youths ages 13 to 21 to provide educational, career-ladder, and work-training opportunities. She agreed with Torres that education and career experience are intertwined and proven to have a marked effect on employment rates.

However, in Hampden County, the road to that ‘new standard’ of a bachelor’s degree to prepare for career stability and advancement is a long one.

“Education and work experience are aligned,” she said, “and with a 50% non-graduation rate over four years in this area, many of today’s students need support that previous generations did not. We have to start early to educate students on their options and cultivate their goals.”

This is an objective that doesn’t start and stop in high school, either. Scibelli said her department’s work begins with children as early as pre-kindergarten, and carries on to young-adult populations.

“This is how we are preparing the next generation — by finding every way possible to get kids connected and contributing to the community.”

Further, this work cannot include only young, developing populations. Instead, Scibelli explained that the latest push in youth development and career training in Hampden County is engaging businesses in the process of developing tomorrow’s workforce.

“Many businesses are stepping up to the plate,” she said, citing MassMutual, Big Y, Baystate Health, and Western Mass. Electric Co. among the REB’s largest partners. “They’re providing career-ladder training, internships, and educational opportunities that help students develop 21st-century skills. But more importantly, these businesses are signaling to the students what positions exist for them following education and training. This, ultimately, is what’s going to keep those young people in the area.”

As more area businesses sign on to work more proactively with young populations, Scibelli noted that new opportunities are surfacing, which could lead to further development of the connection between education and economic security cited in Great Expectations among the 25-to-39-year-old set.

“More partners are realizing they need to be a bigger part of the picture,” she said, “and they’re starting to introduce programs that link to internships and scholarships at the higher-education level. They’re essentially building a new infrastructure that’s aimed at knowledge transfer, and helping younger people to do better overall.”

Common Ground

In its closing assessment, Great Expectations reports that, overall, “there is a lot of goodwill toward the state, which leaders can build upon as they try to attract and retain young adults.”

In response, Dancs said this is the greatest strength of the study and its findings.

“There are a lot of questions that come up when we read this; it will also be interesting to see five years from now if that level of optimism still exists,” she said. “But in the end, any optimism is going to have a positive effect on the economic outlook.”

For now, the economic outlook is hazy. But the belief that things will get better, and that the young workforce of Massachusetts will be a driving force thereof, is a documented fact.

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