The Coming Youth Glut

By 2006, the peak of the recently deceased economic boom, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers—more than one-fifth of the population and the rough equivalent of three Bostons—were between the ages of 20 and 35, according to census estimates. About three in 10 Manhattanites fell into that age range.

Many, of course, came from college, where their shiny eyes had been trained raptly toward the world capital of finance, media and culture. In 1970, 19.5 percent of New Yorkers in their 20s had college degrees, according to a census analysis by Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge. By 2005, that percentage had more than doubled.

Now what?

The 90,000 laid-off office workers that the city anticipates by the end of 2009 will include many of these younger New Yorkers. A lot will hail from the city’s more lucrative fields, including finance, advertising and law.

The city could, then, soon experience a glut of the young, the talented—and the idle; and it may not be so easy to unclog before there are serious repercussions, particularly for real estate and the very real fabric of certain neighborhoods.

“People in their 20s, I feel for them, I really do,” said Lisa Chamberlain, 39, author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction.

“It’s not like this is cyclical job loss,” she said of the financial implosion, which reminds her of the dot-com bust and the accompanying loss of jobs. “It’s not like these jobs are going to come back when the economy recovers. A lot of these jobs are going to be permanently gone; and that was true with the dot-com thing. … I mean, I don’t know who’s going to be selling derivatives in five years.”

 

In the past decade, it was not unusual to encounter entire swaths of cityscape that functioned as de facto college campuses, peopled by the young then cleaning up in finance and its attendant industries, like corporate law and marketing. Murray Hill, the Financial District, North Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, parts of Astoria—the infrastructure might scream urbanism, but the vibe felt like a perpetual quad.

And the real estate development helping to spur these changes catered to youth (or, at least, youthfulness): Condo ads hawked sex as much as marble countertops; apartment towers promised an existential womb of gym, spa, FreshDirect and concierge all in one; neighborhood reps rose on their marketability to youth—no boom-time broker ever intentionally strived to sound old and outdated.

The young were to populate New Rome’s outposts in their ascendancy, like the young right before them populated Soho, Tribeca and the East Village during those areas’ rises (never mind that those old New York neighborhoods demanded of their newcomers a sterner shade of scrappiness than choosing in which faux dive to pay $7 for a microbrew).

So long to all that.

The Manhattan apartment vacancy rate stands somewhere below 5 percent, and prime tenants remain the young and the newly arrived. Take them away and see the vacancy rate rise. See the attitudes of developers, tenants and owners toward certain neighborhoods change.

See the gains of gentrification and of government rezoning roll back.

It hasn’t been all bad: Despite the homogenization and the bitchy critics’ chorus (often culled from the same newcomer ranks), those hyper-educated young arrivals brought with them retail improvements, crime declines and rising property values that helped change many areas of the city for the better. The gentrification spurred investment by developers (the city in 2007 recorded its highest number of private residential building permits in 35 years) and a rethinking of land use by City Hall. Witness the major 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront for housing development.

 

Many of the recently and imminently laid-off young, educated comers will likely find a way to adjust and stay. Ms. Chamberlain knows of a New Yorker who, during the last recession in 2000 and 2001, started an international soccer exchange between the U.S. and Latin America, turning a hobby into a business.

Others, now in their starry teens and early 20s, will joyfully join them in fresh hopes. The Bloomberg administration estimates that by 2030, half the city will be under 38.

And those young ones who leave?

For them, no worries. New York, like college, was a part of an extended adolescence; it burned brightly in the present and remains a fond recollection. Something you tried, and then the Crisis of ’08 chewed you up.

So you left. Making it doesn’t necessarily even entail a Gotham stop anymore.

Forty years ago, “anyone who was going to advance in America, where you really had to make it was New York,” said Joel Kotkin, a 55-year-old Sheepshead Bay native and urban trends expert (and current Los Angeles resident).

Now, not so much. New York’s dominant in so many fields—including, improbably enough, high finance—but no longer hegemonic. Really, for the upwardly young and educated, we’re a relationship that may or may not lead to marriage.

“Think of the country—there’s this country, and then there’s these giant theme parks, and one is New York,” Mr. Kotkin said during an interview earlier this month. “You go there; it’s a phase of your life. You live there for five years, 10 years. But then most people either don’t do well enough to stay, or get tired of it at some point and leave.”

tacitelli@observer.com

The Coming Youth Glut