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One of the keys to a thriving a metro area economy is keeping and attracting millennials, a speaker at Tuesday's Statewide Economic Development Summit said.

ADVOCATE STAFF FILE PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

As millennials — those born between 1981 and 2000 — became the largest generation of Americans, the demographic’s total U.S. population increased by approximately 2.6 million from 2010 and 2016, according to Census estimates.

But counter to the national trend, Mississippi’s Millennial population has dropped to 801,799, a 3.9 percent decrease during those six years, Mississippi Today reports, via The (Biloxi) Sun Herald.

According to a governing.com analysis of the recently reported state-by-state Census data, no other state in the country lost more millennials. (Overall, Mississippi’s population increased by nearly 20,000 during the same amount of time to total 2,974,294 in 2016.)

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Many millennials are leaving the state, where slightly more than half of the people live in rural areas, to experience an urban environment, says Noah Sanford, a 27-year-old state representative from Collins who is also a part of the Millennial Caucus.

“They go off to college, and they don’t come back to their hometowns. They’re going to major cities and suburbs,” said Sanford.

According an article published by the Nielsen consumer research company, Sanford is right. “millennials Prefer Cities to Suburbs, Subways to Driveways” states that 40 percent of millennials prefer to live in an urban area.

“If you look at Alabama and Louisiana, their (economic and social) policies have not differed much in the past 50 years. We have very similar trajectories, but they’re not suffering some of the same population issues as we are,” said Sanford.

Those states have more big cities and metropolitan areas. “All we have is Jackson,” said Sanford.

Only one city in the state, Jackson, has a population over 100,000. Only one other city has a population over 50,000: Gulfport at just over 70,000 residents according to the latest Census estimates.

Nearby states also lost millennials, but proportionally not as many: Alabama, 1.8 percent, and Arkansas, 0.2 percent. Other than Mississippi, the only other states experiencing a decline of more than two percentage points between 2010 and 2016 were Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico.

“We have yet to give young people a reason to stay and invest in Mississippi,” says Jeramey Anderson, a 25-year-old state representative from Moss Point. He co-chairs the Mississippi Future Caucus formed during this year’s Legislative session for lawmakers under 40 years old.

“I remember being in (Moss Point) high school and 80 percent of my senior class was like, ‘I can’t wait to get out of Mississippi,'” said Anderson. “It’s hurtful as a citizen.”

One key is creating a professional, political and social environment that is attractive to college-educated Mississippians, he said.

“We have bright, intelligent people who go to school here and leave,” said Anderson. “If we want to make progress somebody has to be here to make life better. I think that’s something the Future Caucus is working on — talent retention.”

New job opportunities in community relations led Tyler Hill, 26, and his wife to move to Greeley, Colo., in 2016 even though the cost of living there is higher than in Mississippi.

“After my wife and I married in summer 2016, we realized job opportunities, specifically in her field, were limited at best,” said Hill, who is from Hurley, Miss. “She is a teacher of the deaf. Nationally, school districts and legislatures tend to spend less on special needs programs; in Mississippi, spending in this field is abysmal. The lack of jobs and growth opportunity forces us out of the state.”

In response to stories such as Hill’s, Anderson asks, “Can you blame millennials for wanting go where they can make the most of their opportunity? I can’t, but we as a state can do a better job of fostering a more welcoming environment that doesn’t contradict the narrative of ‘the hospitality’ state.”

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Shivon Hess, a 30-year-old academic librarian at a community college, did not find the state hospitable. She moved to Mississippi in 2011 but left four years later for Fresno, Calif. She says a major motivation was the state’s social environment.

“Incredible racism and bigotry. There’s a bit of that everywhere, but it’s so entrenched in Mississippi,” said Hess. “It wasn’t the type of environment I wanted to live in long-term and was the main reason why I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to raise a family there.”

Both state representatives believe that unless the Millennial “brain drain” isn’t addressed, there could be serious consequences.

“We can’t be upside down in that we have fewer and fewer young people. It’s a United States problem as a whole. We have more retirees and children than people entering the work force,” said Sanford.

“If we don’t act now, it’s going to be a problem,” said Anderson.

For the full story from the The (Biloxi) Sun Herald, click here.