Buss: Millennials in Michigan: Should I stay or should I go

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

For today's millennials, a community's political environment and culture might influence where they choose to live. Unfortunately for Michigan, whether or not those young people decide to live in the state is more critical than ever before.

Despite the youth on exhibit in Detroit’s Slow Roll, Michigan lost 3.5 percent of people ages 22-34 in 2013, the largest outmigration of people that age since 2010.

"We're not doing well in attracting young people," said Kurt Metzger, a demographer who co-founded Data Driven Detroit and is now the mayor of Pleasant Ridge. "We are aging faster than any other state in the country."

Yet some work and rhetoric coming from the state Legislature seems increasingly tone-deaf to millennials' priorities, thwarting progress made revitalizing the state's economy and urban centers, which helps attract this core demographic.

Despite the modest influx of young people into cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan lost 3.5 percent of people ages 22-34 in 2013. That's the largest outmigration of people that age since 2010, when the state lost 4.4 percent, according to census information.

And of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country, Metro Detroit's millennial population is second to last. But the area ranks third highest for percentage of the population made up of baby boomers, Metzger added.

For millennials, it's not just about where the jobs are.

"Politics aside, young people tend to think alike," said Frank Foster, a 28-year-old former Republican state legislator who runs his own business. "It would be better for people to want or keep living in Michigan if they thought the climate was more accustomed to what their value set is."

Foster, who was a vocal supporter for extending the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect sexual orientation from discrimination, lost his seat last fall. Though an isolated experience, Foster's defeat illustrates the intense opposition that exists over an issue — gay rights — that for most millennials is pretty cut and dried.

Freedom to marry and protecting sexual orientation from discrimination are some of the most important and seemingly obvious issues to young people. The generation's widespread support of gay rights issues has been arguably the biggest shift in public opinion in the past decade.

Millennials' approval of gay marriage hovered between 44 percent and 54 percent from 2003 to 2010. Since then, support has shot up to 67 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

The support isn't blasé, either. The Reason Foundation says 45 percent of millennials wouldn't vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on same-sex marriage, even if they agreed on other issues, according to its Reason-Rupe 2014 Millennial Survey. Yet during this shift, Michigan passed a ban on gay marriage, which state Attorney General Bill Schuette is now fighting to uphold. And the Legislature last year chose not to extend the state's civil rights law to protect sexual orientation from discrimination.

Catering to the priorities of younger generations would go a long way to help keep this core demographic in Michigan.

This term's GOP caucus has "no interest" in taking up Elliott-Larsen expansion again, House Speaker Kevin Cotter said. And just last month, the House passed a bill to allow faith-based adoption services to reject gay couples explicitly because of their lifestyles.

Of course, ultimately the fate of gay marriage in Michigan hangs on the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming ruling.

But even if the court rules gay couples have constitutional "equal protection" and "due process" rights under marriage laws, that won't change Michigan's discrimination laws, or alter the anti-gay sentiments being projected from some of the state's top leaders.

State Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, recently tweeted an in-state journalist was gay, insinuating it would negatively affect his work, and state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Benton Harbor, recently insulted his gay constituents by calling California the "land of fruit and nuts."

In addition to the Legislature's decisions as a whole, these kinds of anti-gay one-offs further the notion Michigan is unfriendly toward gays and lesbians — and perhaps unwelcoming or backward in general. The state's culture has already cost it some people.

"We didn't want to be like many of our friends who left the state, some of whom didn't return," said Greg McNeilly, a Republican consultant. He and his partner decided to marry, but wanted to do so in Michigan. The two finally married here during the brief window on March 22, last year, when 300 other same-sex couples legally wed in the state.

While Republicans in general are more likely than Democrats to oppose gay marriage and gay rights, that gap narrows when it comes to millennials.

Nationally, 54 percent of Republican millennials support gay marriage, and nearly a third of Republican millennials say they trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle this issue, according to the Reason Foundation. Even among the most conservative Republican millennials — self-identifying Evangelicals — 64 percent support gay marriage, according to Alex Lundry, the former director of data science for Mitt Romney's campaign.

"I don't think most students are different from everyday people. They don't know if Republicans or Democrats are in charge, and they don't care about the specifics of policies," said Leon Drolet, chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance and a former state legislator who works with millennials every day. "Instead, what they get is a general sense of the politics in a particular area or state — and that translates culturally for them."

Reasonable marijuana laws, another important issue to millennials, has also been met with a backward response from the state Legislature, which has yet to clarify regulations for medical patients, and ignores broader polling on the subject of legalization in Michigan. Nationally, almost two-thirds of millennials support legalizing it.

"Even if (millennials) themselves want traditional values, they want a place where they can choose how they live," Drolet said. "A state that is very harsh on marijuana laws or is passing gay marriage bans sends signals that it's a controlling environment."

Some medical marijuana patients may move to states with more accessible policies, like Colorado or Washington. Even Ohio might soon be a better option for patients obtaining medicine and improving their quality of life.

But the tension over "values" doesn't end with millennials and the Legislature. Michigan's business community and Gov. Rick Snyder seem to understand the state can't afford to lose more young people, and they work around politicians to try to create a welcoming atmosphere.

"I think they're nervous," Foster said of the state's business community. "What ended up happening in Indiana was very similar to what we were trying to get done last year, and they've seen how state politics can really affect mood and business decisions."

Typically silent on social issues, Snyder proactively stated he'd veto legislation similar to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act if needed. He also chose not to oppose the validity of the 300 marriages performed in the state in March 2014.

Even Snyder's work to bring more immigrants to Michigan matches millennials' general views on the issue. Corporate giants like General Motors understand how critical these inclusive policies are to attracting and retaining quality employees at its headquarters.

Years ago the company created GM Plus, an employee resource group for LGBT employees. The company recognizes employees' same-sex marriages, regardless of where the ceremony took place, and offers all employees the same benefit structure. It also has had a policy to protect sexual orientation since 2007.

Both Drolet and Metzger pegged the schism between the Legislature and younger Michiganians on gerrymandered districts. After the last redistricting, they say the lines favor older, more conservative voters. Whatever the reason, it's hard for the state to boast about its current political culture.

"All young people hear is their state fighting over stuff they feel is antiquated," Drolet said. "Changing the status quo is hard work and it takes time. (Millennials) can stay and work to try to overcome it, or move someplace that suits them better."

For Michigan, it will soon become clear which route this generation is taking.



Kaitlyn Buss is an editorial writer at The Detroit News.