Giving Back to Metro
You’ve listened to all the pleas and seen all the advantages and you’ve decided to stay in Metro Detroit. You live in a beautiful home, have a successful career with a promising future, and you’re dating that perfect someone, all before turning 35. You are the creative class and through whatever effort, or divine intervention, you have been attracted and/or retained. Now it’s time to give something back.
Philanthropy is not just a means for the wealthy and privileged to assuage their guilt for being wealthy and privileged. It doesn’t take a check book, gray hair, and a black-tie to make a real difference in Michigan’s social and cultural non-profits. As a young person you have something equally as important as money, and perhaps even more critical. You have your time.
Earlier in the week I pointed out how valuable your labor capital was. Unencumbered by the responsibilities or accountability of the older, there is a lot you can do with the potential 80+ hours of labor capital you may have in any given week. A donation of your time to a not for profit has a valuation just as tangible as a donation of cash or an in-kind service may have.
I know the idea of donating your Saturday to pick up trash on the highway or read to strays at the Human Society sounds like something a court would order. For those I ask that you approach the time you donate much like you would approach the hours you spend at work. You don’t type out your e-mails with the end of your pencil or make copies of important documents with an egg of silly putty. Make your contribution to a non-profit as efficient and as measured as your rock it in your professional life. Volunteer to serve on a board or committee.
You would be surprised how easy it is to have a profound impact with your new ideas and your youthful energy. Most boards I know are hungry for some new blood and committed change. As our state’s population ages at an even more accelerated rate than the rest of America, it is critical that non-profits, like companies, are prepared for the dramatic shift in demographics. Your time spent at the conference table will plant seeds of change. Throughout your tenure those seeds will blossom and bring to fruition the tools and business practices that will guarantee the survival of institutions that helped shape and define Michigan since its inception.
All those museums, theaters, those social support and advocacy groups that keep the quality of life going where the government and private sector fail, all those will die with their current donor base in a few decades or less if the young don’t step up to steward direction and establish relevance to the next generation of givers and appreciators.
When you serve on a board what you get in return beyond the feeling that you did something moral good and right is the opportunity to showcase your unique talent to others older and more successful than your current network of contacts or business associates. When you serve on a board you show everyone else around the table just what kind of work you can do and how beneficial that labor capital could potentially be to their companies in their own arenas.
The quickest shortcut to the chairman’s office in your own job is having powerful and influential allies and customers singing your praise due to your astounding performance on the board which they serve on with you. I’m a real estate salesman who serves on over a half dozen non-profit boards and commissions. My fellow board members just happen to be presidents and CEOs who have turned out to be some of my best customers and professional contacts over the years. Who said altruism is dead.
Perhaps the largest criticism levied against staying in Michigan through your twenties has nothing to do with housing or employment. For some, it’s the social aspects to quality of life where we as a region drop the biggest creative class ball. There is no one to date, no where to take said date, and nothing to do once there. Apparently in comparison to bigger cities, we live in a vast cultural wasteland—void of both adequate mates and substantive entertainment.
As a child born and raised in Ann Arbor, attitudes such as these are perhaps one of the more perplexing arguments for flight for me to understand. In this little, big city dominated by the cultural, economic, and social powerhouse of the University of Michigan, those native born never lacked or wanted for numerous options for artistic and creative opportunities. The public school system here guaranteed that, like it or not, every young child would be bused or marched seasonally to at least an opera, a symphony, multiple museums, and the botanical gardens. Furthermore, most in this town were wealthy enough to vacation broadly with their parents from an early age. If not, the school foreign language departments and countless other service organizations made sure that most kids graduated high school with at least a few stamps in their passports. My friends who were raised similarly in Oakland and other well-off areas often claim similar upbringings.
What’s ironic is that it is perhaps by the very nature of this availability of culture—the abundance of art and metropolitan lifestyle in Southeastern Michigan—that has contributed to the exodus of the young, affluent and educated. It is an oblivious princess syndrome—where having been locked in our richly appointed tower most of ours lives we fail to realize just how great we have had it.
I hear from those who did leave a few years ago that things aren’t necessarily as great as they had imagined. Life in a big city is hard. Apparently it’s not that easy to take in all the shows, exhibits, bars, and available singles when half your meager income goes to pay rent in an apartment you’re too busy with work to ever even see. I hear of loneliness at not being able to meet anybody in a city of millions, of frustration with the inability to buy a favorite food at the corner bodega, of annoyance at having to take a 20 minute subway ride to go work out at an overcrowded gym. They tell me they miss their great lives in Michigan and living in New York as a new adult is certainly not the same as visiting New York as a teenager with their parents and their parent’s money.
I’m sure some that have left are quite happy with their new life away. Yet even though it may be from the inside of the jar looking out, I question the logic of giving up the opportunity to build a life from the start in a state that in reality lacks little when it comes to social assets. Those that come back later in life (as over half do historically) will find that the years spent away don’t necessarily easily transfer into equally earned equity and experience to those that stayed. Make and spend your money here. It will be worth it. For those with wanderlust, the world is only as far away from Detroit as a plane ticket, a free weekend, and the desire to explore.
My intent with this blog was to continue the prep rally of my first posts and use smarmy metaphors and self-effacing, yet at the same time self-congratulating, anecdotes that would spin a fable of how great it is to work in Metro Detroit. That was my intent, until I realized that there was no pulling the wool over the eyes of all of us who are suffering through the frigid reality of our current economy.
So here it goes. No hype, no promotion, the simple truth when it comes to working in this area. And that truth is that if you are young and if you stay in Michigan to start your career you are taking a great risk with your future. Life isn’t easy. Life is hard, and there isn’t anything here in the water that guarantees a life of success over living anywhere else.
I probably don’t need to tell that times are quite hard right now in the Mitten. The economy is a mess, unemployment is high, and the government is deadlocked. It is no wonder we are experiencing an unprecedented drain of youth across the borders. I saw the movie, a lot of people got off the Titanic safely before it finally went down.
Young people in this region are gambling with an important time in their life. We invest a huge amount of labor capital in a market undefined and uncertain. Well, guess what, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing at this point in our life. Without great risk there can be no great reward. Getting something for nothing is something little children and people currently under federal investigation tend to believe. You want to be richer? You want more success, prestige, a greater feeling of self worth and achievement? Do you want to look out from the great porch of your life and know that you acted wisely on every opportunity to do so? Then take a chance and stay here.
It has been my experience over the past eight years of working in Michigan that business rewards only one thing greater than taking risks, and that is loyalty. If you stick it out, if you make an honest and committed effort to give all you have to a state that needs so much, you will be rewarded. There are fewer of us here everyday, leaving the potential future spoils less divided and easier to obtain. As one comment to my first post pointed out very well, it’s a shorter distance to that corner office when half the chairs between you and it are empty.
So take a chance. The worse thing that could happen is that you risk it all, fail, and still have the vast majority of your working life to learn from your valuable mistakes as you rebuild an even greater empire. Fortunes are made out of adversity not complacency. We will be back on top one day soon. Historically Michigan has been one of the wealthiest states in our great country. Why be so quick to run from this once in a lifetime opportunity to share in the legacy of that greatness?
Being young and living in and around the D can offer much in the way of options for housing. Whether you’re high styling it in a lux-downtown high-rise, getting gritty with a spacious loft conversation, or attempting to hold on to those fleeting college days as "that guy" squatting in a campus frat, nobody here judges where you choose to go to lay your head and play with your toys. We’re all pioneers together in this wild-west of a down-turned state. Rents are cheap and the fact that our population hasn’t been moving in the right direction over the past few decades has all but guaranteed a housing stock as diverse as its residents. That’s not to say that perfect place is always easy to find for the young and credit-risky. Some places are expensive and not every community is hip yet to just what it is we may be looking for.
I know when I first graduated out of Michigan I was faced with the daunting, expensive, and nerve-wracking task of trying to find that perfect Ann Arbor living arrangement. I wanted a home that spoke to my new lifestyle, not as a student at the U, but as a townie in the ‘Deuce’. I no longer wanted to share a dilapidated house with six dudes and a sticky ping-pong table, nor did I want to hovel it alone in a non-descript one bedroom near TGIFridays.
I searched far and wide in my price range and only came up with places where "furnished" meant mantel displays of Absolute bottles soaking highlighters or places where the recently arrived, divorced, or foreclosed go to make loud noises in the night and cook curry. Dejected and emasculated by my failure to seek shelter, I moved back in with my mother and for the first time realized that this whole 'being an adult' thing wasn’t all that was promised at Commencement.
Fast forward eighteen months and I stumbled upon my dream home through my commercial real estate ramblings in downtown Ann Arbor. The Maison de Liberte, as it would come to be called, is a two-story, 4,000 square foot, Wayne Manor of a loft, perched majestically above an antique bookstore and its own two car attached garage. Built in 1888 as a residence for Ann Arbor’s first professional portrait photographer, it still boasts such bizarre Victorian accoutrements as a ballroom, a game parlor, valet quarters, and crotch-high doorknobs on 12’ high doors (people were apparently shorter back then). With no savings and a job with anything but guaranteed income, I quickly signed a lease and moved the few dishes I could pilfer from my mother’s into my new hardwood kitchen cabinets.
For the first six months in my new place I slept in a sleeping bag and ate my meals cross-legged on the floor, but I still couldn’t help but think about my friends, the chumps, who moved to New York so they could go broke living three deep in a one room studio walk-up in Alphabet City.
And that’s what we have here in Metro Detroit; lots of incredible architecture and depressed real estate prices. It touches on one of the main advantages to living in Michigan as it goes through this transitional time. I’m four odd years now at my home on Liberty Street. While I’ve since bought a bed, a table, and taken on a roommate with a obsessive, and heavy, vinyl collection, it will still take us years to fill the space we have. Our rent is affordable at a fraction of the 1/3 yearly income they say you should spend (closer to ½ income is apparently justifiable in NYC).
Our downtown neighborhood is chockfull of galleries, theaters, restaurants and bars within stumbling distance to our front door. Even our parents and their friends seem to enjoy visiting our apartment more then they like burbing it up in their burbs. But above all that, barely out of school and just starting lives of hopeful promise, my roommate and I are fortunate to have not just a place to crash but to truly have a home.
Living in Detroit today offers our generation the opportunity to start out strong and start out young. Batman can’t fight crime without his cave, and the Hef’s social life would be severely cramped without the Grotto. Why then do so many people flee to bigger cities with expectation of conquering the world while being unable to afford a base of operations better than most European hostels?
It pays to stay here, in so many different ways. Affordable, unique housing is just one of the sharp tools that this region places in the hands of its youth in hopes that they scratch their names deep into the uncertain surface of our future. Next time we will discuss what else we have in our tool belt when it comes to the idea of business and working as a young gun still here.
It’s amusing that I would be asked to blog on the joys of being a young and ambitious resident of Michigan during not only the first truly cold week of the season but also on the auspicious 27th anniversary of my birth. I’m expected to write glowingly on the unique experience of being post-grad, yet still pre-fam, while living, working, and playing in a region that some may say is beleaguered to the point of collapse. If there are two things above all else that make most young people question the sanity of their decision to tough it out here through their twenties it is -1) the weather and -2) the somewhat depressing celebration of yet another year that might have been better spent elsewhere.
Just why would someone with a couple of advanced degrees in his pocket, an esoteric name to make, and a whole lot of something to prove choose to stake his claim here, on what some may say is an economic fault line ready to swallow our region down to oblivion? To ask me that question a few years ago I would have told you it was the path of least resistance.
I spent most of college working in real estate to help fund my lofty Mechanical Engineering and Japanese education (I wanted to build Japanese space robots). However upon graduation I was presented with somewhat less lofty career options (they wanted me to design plastic windshield washer fluid reservoirs for minivans). The choice at the time seemed simple and I ended up sticking with the bricks and mortar simply because it kept me above ground and walking with the living.
Now here I am 8 years into the game and still rolling the dice like I’ve got nothing to lose, or perhaps more accurately, everything to lose. I understand I’m painting with a broad brush here, but yes, your twenties are important. It is perhaps one of the few times in your life where you are old enough and educated or skilled enough to invest 100% of your available time and energy into advancing your lot in life. No real burdens are pulling you home at 5:15pm each night and no real worries are keeping you up ‘till 5:15am each morning. You are a dynamo of labor capital, prone to making mistakes from lack of experience sure, but still predisposed to putting in 80+ hours a week at a fraction of the pay of your older co-workers.
Yes, you are important and the companies of tomorrow love you, my new adult friends. They either want to hire you en masse and pay you little or they want access to your seemingly bottomless wallets of disposable income. They want to tap you for your ideas, your creativity, your energy, and your vigor. You add something to the discourse of business ideas, you broaden the cultural dynamic of the work place, and you’re great on the bottom line. Be assured that these companies will take all that you have and only give the bare minimum you need to subsist in return. And this right here, is why young people in Michigan, and especially in Metro Detroit, are holding all the cards in the uncertain poker game of our state’s future.
As a demographic, our numbers are dwindling, leaving the pickings slim for all those that want us so bad. We are the ones in control of our destinies when it comes to the work we want to do and the lives we wish to lead. New York, Chicago, these places are great, but the creative class in these markets is overflowing with 20-somethings from all over the world who come together in pursuit of the same thing. The competition is fierce and opportunities available are limited relative to the labor pool. Believe it or not, here in Detroit the ratios are switched in our favor, with more opportunities than young people to take advantage of them. Over the next week, I will be exploring just what it is to be a twenty-something in Michigan in 2007. We will talk living Metro, working Metro, playing Metro, and, to break the stereotype of my generation being only self-interested, we will even discuss what it means to give back to Metro. It’s great here, and it’s about time we stop bemoaning what we lack and start celebrating where we’re stacked.