Know Y: Michigan, The Nation's Ex

In High Fidelity, John Cusack's character (Rob Gordon) goes back through his most memorable breakups to find out what went wrong in his past relationships. Where he could have been more considerate, where he didn't appreciate something when it was right there in front of him, where his own idiosyncrasies or preferences were in conflict with the current situation. Michigan is becoming the nation's ex.

Let me 'splain.

But first, a gut-wrenching confession of epic proportions: I have left Michigan. As winter turned to spring this year, I was offered a PR job at YouTube in California, and the inner conflict began.  When you publicly announce your loyalty to the state -- and subsequently abandon those principles for a bigger career opportunity -- it's time to face the music. I wasn't entirely confident that I'd be a "lifer' here in Michigan, but I was convinced people needed to recognize how remarkable my home state truly is. I have not abandoned this opinion.

Over the course of the last few months as my new job became more tangible, I realized how quickly I had descended into hypocrisy. Now I was every bit the politician who defends their pre-candidacy statements, "Well, I meant what I said when I wrote that." I did sing Michigan's praises, because this state is deserving. At that time, as well as now, that's my prerogative.

The premise remains the same for me -- Michigan is a terrific place to be as a new grad. There are growth opportunities for Gen Y. I'd been blessed to latch onto just such an opportunity as Google grew in Ann Arbor. Now I'm getting back to what my degree prepared me for and where my interests lie. And so, I've started my new journey on the West Coast. In the transition, however, there was a lot of reflection…so back to why I think Michigan has become the nation's ex.

I don't need convincing that this is a great place to have a life, but as I've seen more and more friends depart the state, it's becoming apparent that there are people who do.  But it's not always the right fit, and sometimes the romance fizzles.

A co-worker of mine, Brian Tschoepe, started in Ann Arbor, and later had the opportunity to transfer to our Chicago office.  I asked him what Chicago offers that Michigan just didn't have.  He summed it up for me -- "More people. Bigger city." He then went on to qualify his statement. "I loved Michigan, but honestly, I need more of an urban city."

Can you blame the guy? On the flip side, Brian missed the landscape of Ann Arbor. Our lakes. The small town feel, college rivalry atmosphere, and proximity to Canada.  Is this second list of perks mutually exclusive to the first? Could be, but herein lies the metaphor. Michigan can't be everything to everyone, and sometimes it gets burned like an ex you left because you just wanted different things in life.

We lose Gen Y to Chicago constantly, but I also wanted to see what people liked about their new digs in other locations. Trisha Khanna grew up in Orchard Lake, had left Michigan to go to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and returned to Michigan in 2007 to work for Google's Ann Arbor office. She enjoyed her three years back in her home state, and then made the leap to Boulder, Colo., six months ago.

I ask Trisha what Boulder offers that Michigan will never have. "Ah, this one is fairly easy", she says, "Mountains, more sunshine, and my boyfriend." Well yes, Michigan has its own geographic charm, but we're not a mountain town, and that's part of our individuality.

We do have lakes, though, and this was highlighted again when I asked Trisha what she misses about Michigan. "The Great Lakes are spectacular! Also, I really appreciated the people in Michigan -- genuine, hardworking, intelligent, caring, and fun. Not to say that those types of people don't exist outside of Michigan, but there was also a lot of state pride. People from Michigan tend to tell you they are from Michigan."

And so it goes. Others I knew were leaving for reasons that you can't quite argue against. Leaving to go back to grad school, traveling /living abroad, or following their significant others to jobs cross-country. I fought this migration so fiercely because I saw that we were losing our best people to other states. Wait a minute…was I seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness? No, I was being over-dramatic, as a 20-something is wont to do. In the end, there were certainly enough "angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection' in Ann Arbor, but not so many that were starving, hysterical, or naked. People will move on, and it's perfectly natural.

Even so, if Michigan wants to compete with the other "magnetic places' for youth, it's going to need to keep up in more categories. We'll never be a state with the flashing lights of New York, but we should also refuse to accept the consolation prize. We can compliment parks and our small town feel "til we're blue in the face, but that makes Ann Arbor a "safe date' with a "nice personality' and not someone that inspires you to drop to one knee and make a long-term commitment to.

I would challenge Ann Arbor to commit itself to these three things, which would have made my decision to leave all the more difficult, if not completely obsolete.

  1. Job diversification. I didn't want to "dump" Michigan. It had so many qualities that I was looking for in a homebase -- save one.  Selfishly, that turned out to be my career growth. As Gen Y'ers figure out their next career moves, we need to encourage a range of businesses with an enticing array of jobs. Easier said than done, but if this is a wish list, economic livelihood tops it.
  2. A dynamic downtown. We lack discovery of new places, and I don't think the fact that Ann Arbor's a small town is an excuse. Give us something to explore and keep the chains out. Create more opportunities for innovative and surprising businesses, organizations, events, and entertainment to take root. If Ypsi can hold a puppet-hosted mayoral debate, surely A2 can too.
  3. Knock off the "Us vs. Them" development wars. Before I left, I participated in a few meetings where young people discussed development issues coming before council. The tone was hopeful, but felt combative. The general sentiment was that older residents liked how things were, just as they are, and had the time and resources to fight like hell to keep it that way. We need to open the discussion -- that's right, "discussion', not "argument'. A stronger acknowledgment from city government that young professionals' interests are being considered would be a welcome start.
Just my two cents. If you'll recall in High Fidelity, Rob Gordon gets back with his ex at the end. And then Jack Black throws down a fantastic rendition of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" with his band, Sonic Death Monkey. So if  you'll excuse me, I need to start compiling my mix tape and making a plan to (at some point) get back to Michigan.

Kate Rose is an MSU grad and native Michigander. Her day job is at Google, which recently beckoned her to return to the mothership in Mountainview, California. She will be sorely missed. Kate's previous article for Concentrate was Know Y: Three Things European Cities Do Better.


 Ann Arbor mural by Angell Elementary and Community High Students by Doug Coombe

Hang gliding at Sleeping Bear Dunes by Doug Coombe

Chicago Loop by Doug Coombe

The author on the Golden Gate Bridge, photo courtesy Kate Rose

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