Friday, January 8, 2010

Michigan’s Future: It’s all about life styles


Consider these threads from recent Michigan headlines:
  • “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign works wonders
  • Tens of thousands of college educated youth leave Michigan for “cooler” destinations
  • Is happiness still that new car smell?
  • Oakland County Board of Commissioners deadlocked on county-wide public transit

Lure of the Lakes

Can you spot a common theme among these stories? I can. It’s all about life style. When visitors tour our Orchard Lake Museum they see the Life Styles Timeline showing the four types of residents that have lived in our lakes area: Native Americans, Farmers, Vacationers and Suburbanites. Each of these groups was lured to the area by the lakes and the life style the area provided. Ease of transportation provided the means to make the area accessible.

The Native Americans found the area an ideal place to live and counsel. The watersheds for three rivers converging near Orchard Lake made for easy access by canoe. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought thousands of European farmers to the area in search of a better life. The opening of the Grand Trunk Railroad and the Interurban trolley brought vacationers in the early 1900s. The automobile made suburban commuting possible. Many of these same vacationers merged with new arrivals and established our current suburbanite life style.

What’s the next life style?

As our visitors grasp the Life Styles Timeline, we like to pose the question “What will be the next life style in the lakes area?” It is particularly interesting to hear the answers from elementary students. Their response includes everything from Martians to circulating back to the beginning with a Native American way of living (it is interesting to note that in its first week, moviegoers have spent $1 billion worldwide to watch the movie Avatar – based on a fictional story where technologically-advanced human heroes choose the Native American looking Na'vi lifestyle). Is it possible that we are beginning to see the symptoms of a life style change in our area?

The Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, has been tracking the trends showing that “half of Michigan's college grads now leave the state within a year of graduation.”  I know, you think it’s about jobs and weather. Not so. Lou Glazer at Michigan Future, Inc. studied the data and found that Michigan graduates move to a place they see as “cool” and then look for a job. A recent New York Times article tells us that more and more Americans are reassessing their views about automobiles. “Empty nesters are moving back into cities and shedding their cars,” younger consumers “don’t view the car the way their parents did,” and “car owners who remained in the suburbs were downsizing from three cars or more to one or two.”

Glazer studied the major cities of the Midwest and found the big winners in the migration of highly-educated youth to central cities are Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, and Chicago in that order. It seems the farther north we go the more attractive it becomes – so much for the weather argument.

It’s all about life styles. Our youth are looking for regions that have a vibrant city center for their early professional careers and then a move to suburbia when they start a family. The problem is they don’t come back to Michigan. They choose suburbs near the city center to which they have migrated. There have been cases where the lure of jobs has created population migrations. Henry Ford’s $5-a-day in the early 1900s and more recently Silicon Valley are examples. It took all of 20 years before the life styles in Oregon and Idaho started luring the jobs from Silicon Valley and its life style. Are we seeing the same trend in Michigan 100 years after Ford’s pay raise?

Department of life style development

Economies that rely on heavy manufacturing require the workforce to be located near the manufacturing center—whether the workers want to live there or not. The State of Michigan and our own Oakland County have decided that to be competitive we need to foster a knowledge-based economy. History has shown however those workers in a knowledge-based economy have far more flexibility in their choice of location. They can choose the life style they prefer and work from that location.

What made our state’s recent “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign so successful worldwide was that it highlighted the life style elements of Michigan that attracted our predecessors, the Native Americans, the farmers and the vacationers. What appears to be happening is that our cul-de-sac neighborhoods, as they are collectively called, with no city center or public transportation, are no longer seen as attractive to the very types of workers we are trying to attract. Some local governments have gone as far as banning the development of future cul-de-sac neighborhoods (The Washington Post).

From a recent Oakland Press article let me add one more headline to the collection presented in the opening paragraph. “I think I just got fired” was the exclamation uttered by West Bloomfield Township’s director of economic development when the position was eliminated on the grounds it did not produce any results.  Why should this surprise anyone? If we truly want to develop a knowledge-based economy than we better develop the life style preferred by the workers who thrive in that economy. Maybe West Bloomfield Township created the wrong department. How about the Department of Life Style Development?

A final note: our state legislators voted to dramatically reduce and eventually scrap the “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign. Maybe our state needs a Department of Life Style Development.

About the GWBHS
The Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS) is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It serves the Michigan communities of Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and West Bloomfield. The Society's goal is to provide a vital museum to familiarize residents with our area's history. For more information, please visit www.gwbhs.com

Complete paper with references: Michigan's Future: Life Stlyes

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