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Happy at home: Generation Y looks for success on its own terms

Sanford Bledsoe and Anna Foster at the (espresso) bar in Ann Arbor, the cafe they co-own
Jonathan Alexander
Sanford Bledsoe and Anna Foster at the (espresso) bar in Ann Arbor, the cafe they co-own

Members of Generation Y---those Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s who are currently in college or cutting their teeth in the working world---have received their share of scrutiny in recent years. But where their parents might be discussed in terms of day-glo paint and ideological revolution, Gen Y-ers tends to garner attention for their inseparable relationship with technology and their bad timing, starting their adult lives in America's worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

Going Nowhere?

Last month, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece co-written by economist Todd Buchholz and his daughter Victoria, a student at Cambridge University. It bore the headline “The Go-Nowhere Generation” and in it the Buchholzs argued that unlike previous generations, Generation Y has "become risk-averse and sedentary," unwilling to leave home in search of "sunnier economic climes."

By way of explanation, the Buchholzs cited an increasing reliance on technology and a tendency amongst Gen Y-ers to overemphasize luck in economic success. But whatever the reasons, they wrote, young Americans had better get moving or risk prolonging the country's economic woes and permanently damaging their future earning potential.

Michigan’s Lost Youth

The Buchholzs' argument raises some interesting questions about how a state like Michigan fits into this picture. Aren’t we always hearing about young people fleeing the Midwest? About our "brain drain" crisis and how local leaders are trying all sorts of things to recruit and retain talent?

In 2009, when the "Great Recession" was in full swing, Michigan Radio’s Lauren Silverman examined Generation Y’s relationship to the state in a series of reports, talking to young people planning their futures and to members of older generations hoping to entice them to stick around. Silverman found that, to a certain extent, Michigan’s young people---especially the more educated ones---seem to already be heeding the Buchholzs’ advice, taking off for Chicago, the west coast, or anywhere else with more opportunity, much to the chagrin of people working to revitalize the state’s economy.

Closer to Home

But what about those members of Generation Y who are sticking around?

A preliminary report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2011, Michiganders age 20-24 faced an average unemployment rate of 15.3 percent. Are those who have chosen to stay really so complacent that they refuse to relocate despite such grim numbers?

One young business owner in Michigan doesn’t see it that way.

Sandford Bledsoe is an Ann Arbor native in his late twenties who, together with his girlfriend and business partner Anna Foster, opened the succinctly named (espresso) bar earlier this year. (The parenthetical title gives a nod to the coffee shop’s location on the ground-floor beneath an actual bar).

Bledsoe says that he has tried living outside of Michigan, moving to Seattle in 2008 where he first discovered his passion for coffee. But ultimately he says, it wasn’t for him.

“The first time I visited Ann Arbor after I had moved,” Bledsoe says, “I told myself I was never going to come back. I said ‘this place is too small, it’s awful’...And a couple of months later I just realized Ann Arbor is my home. All my friends are here, my family is here." Eventually, Bledsoe says, he felt he had to make a choice: "It kinda got to the point where I was going to have to start voting in Washington and actually try to establish residency...and commit to living there or I was going to commit to living here. This just seemed to make more sense."

And for now at least, Bledsoe says, things are going well.

Small Steps

Bledsoe and Foster originally conceived of their business as a “pop-up shop.” Leasing space that the bar upstairs sometimes uses for film screenings, the two set up shop with no permanent build-out to allow for flexibility. Tucked away in an alley lined with old houses that now hold businesses, the shop is small---just a few tables---and feels like a living room that happens to serve excellent coffee.

Opening a coffee shop in his hometown was never some grand plan, Bledsoe says; the timing of the idea and the space’s availability happened to line up:

“The opportunity just presented itself. It was a really low risk opportunity to try running a business. To see if this was something we actually wanted to do…to see if it’s something we really enjoy, then we’ll continue to reevaluate every couple of months."

While Bledsoe disagrees with Todd and Victoria Buchholz's characterization of Generation Y as complacent or risk-averse, he says he does wish more young people were taking on entrepreneurial projects:

“I think that my friends have a lot of really great ideas and very few of them want to, or have taken the time to kinda flesh out these ideas.” But where the Buchholdzs might argue for something more drastic, Bledsoe says there is a case to be made for starting out small and taking risks closer to home.

Hometown Advantage

Bledsoe says there are definite upsides to starting a business in a place you are familiar with:

“There are a lot of people that I’ve known for years and years and years---we had this initial customer base. We didn’t need to advertise, we just unlocked the doors, put something up on Facebook and it’s been fairly successful so far.”

Bledsoe also says he appreciates the opportunity to work with other local businesses that he admires and feels that participating in the local economy gives young people a sense of taking ownership of their community, especially in a place like Michigan with its ongoing economic difficulties.

“I really love the idea of being able to pay sales tax to the state,” he says.

Weighing Values

So what about arguments like the one from the Buchholzs’ that say people like Sanford Bledsoe would be better off---and would help the country at large---if they hopped on a plane, train, or Greyhound bus in search of greener pastures?

Bledsoe points to a generational shift in thinking, namely Generation Y’s tendency to include things like friendship, community and a sense of place in life decisions along with dollars and cents:

“I know that there’s lots of opportunity doing oil stuff in North Dakota and welding in Alaska. And sometimes you might say: ‘Oh yeah that would be rad, I’ll go do welding in Alaska. That’s not so bad.’ But at the same time, how much is it worth to you to live in a city and to play kickball on the weekends and see your friends every day? And to watch your friends’ kids grow up?...There’s definitely a lot of value in that. I’ll take a hit, work more for less money to be a part of that.”

"It's a different value set," Bledsoe says, and for now, he sees nothing wrong with staying put.

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom