The British Vote and Pittsburgh’s Demographics
We’re all trying to figure out the implications of the somewhat surprising news that UK voters decided by a comfortable majority to leave the European Union. No matter what side you identified with in this grand referendum, it’s always invigorating when democracy’s voices speak.
With a record high voter turn out – over 70% of eligible voters cast ballots – 52% of the voting public rejected continued membership in the EU. The media and politicians immediately parsed the vote to find patterns and explanation. Psychologists teach us this is the most natural of human responses. Our species survived the millennia precisely because we recognize patterns [mostly of predatory behaviors] that kept our ancestors alive and reproducing.
The BBC analysis at 4 a.m. the day after the vote had already devolved into a platitude that this vote was characterized as “young” versus “old” voters. Of course, no one speaking defined at what age young becomes old but that would make for boring media, wouldn’t it now? However, the worst part of these political semantics seemed to be the implication that “young” people are smarter, more successful, more comfortable with the global economy. As if “old” people were just dropped in from planet Artemis and had nothing to do with building an increasingly interconnected world. Older voters were frequently described as “left behind” in the recent economy and not residents of [swinging] London and more evolved urban environs.
And here’s the Pittsburgh rub. Two days ago, local Pittsburgh media outlets all reported U.S. Census estimates that have the population of the metropolitan area actually reversing trends from the 1990s with the median age decreasing by a statistically significant amount. Great, and I agree that a young vibrant population is a component of a successful region. However, it is but one component. Implicit in every report I’ve read – and I will specifically call out the reporting in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette June 22, 2016 edition – that implies this region already has too many older residents. Since the economic decimation that began in the 1980s, a mantra among Pittsburgh’s leaders has been “we’re too old” and that’s what’s holding us back. Far from it. While I too have been guilty of writing about the benefits of having more younger residents in western PA, I think it’s time to modify our wishes. What the entire Tri-State area needs is simply more young people as part of an overall vibrant population. In fact, I believe Pittsburgh’s problem is not the numbers or percentage of older adults. It is in the demographic traits of the older citizens who whether by necessity or choice remained in the region.
Older people, especially retirees with disposable incomes, spend disproportionately higher amounts on the very things that help make for an exciting urban environment: restaurants, theater, museums, travel, and high end retail purchases. What’s all too often happened in the past is that those Pittsburghers with adequate, if not substantial, savings and retirement benefits have taken their wealth and moved it to places like Florida and Arizona. So not only do local business like PNC Bank, as one example, bleed resources that Sun Belt-based Bank of America or Wells Fargo pick up, but potential job opportunities in health care and services best filled by young entrants to the job market are lost as well to those very places deemed more economically vibrant. It becomes a bad cycle.
Bottom line: Yes, we are thrilled that the region’s population is growing younger. Young people tend to take more risks in business, thus expanding the economic base. They themselves age and in doing so form families and have children, thus growing the population even more. And they bring in fresh outlooks that add to the creative vitality. But they, like the rest of us, grow old. That fresh outlook and vital spirit does not depart one just because of time’s capriciousness. What Pittsburgh wants is to retain all its citizens, to build on those who built up the base that launches the next phase of success.