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The next generation: Birmingham millennials shape downtown renaissance

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Maacah Davis, Founding Publisher, Creative Director and Editor-in-Chief of belladonna magazine. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)

By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

Maacah Davis, Founding Publisher, Creative Director and Editor-in-Chief of belladonna magazine. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)
Maacah Davis, Founding Publisher, Creative Director and Editor-in-Chief of belladonna magazine. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)

The growth in Birmingham’s millennial workforce makes sense when considering the downtown revitalization.

Railroad Park and the Parkside community, the recently-opened Publix supermarket and Pizitz Food Court, Avondale’s increasing nightlife and dining industry have transformed Birmingham into a magnet for millennials.

Add the city’s growing cultural scene with the Uptown entertainment district and upcoming attractions like entertainment venue Topgolf and you have the makings of an urban renaissance.

Nearly a quarter of the Birmingham-Hoover population, a total number that approaches 300,000, is made up of millennials ages 20 to 34, according to builderonline.com.

However, millennials said they face some unexpected challenges.

For example, Carmen Mays, a millennial who moved back to Birmingham, said she and her peers have difficulty fulfilling their goals with some in the baby boomer generation staying longer in the workforce, staving off retirement.

“A lot of people are still working that should not be working,” she said. “They have reached their age of retirement or [have worked] a number of years with an organization and are eligible for retirement, but they can’t afford it . . . people who should be able to enter the workforce cannot because those jobs are not available because those people cannot afford to retire.”

Mays believes that many in the older generation feel that millennials are “entitled.”

“The notion of entitlement comes from [baby boomers] telling us that as long as we went to school, stayed out of trouble, we could do and be anything we wanted to be,” she said.

Marsha Morgan, co-founder and former chairperson of the Birmingham Change Fund. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)
Marsha Morgan, co-founder and former chairperson of the Birmingham Change Fund. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)

‘A Real Job’

The realities of the anemic job market have also altered what it means to have a “real job” for some millennials.

“What is a real job?” said Maacah Davis, founding publisher, creative director and editor-in-chief of Birmingham-based belladonna magazine. “There’s a redefinition of what an industry looks like, of what expectations are. We all need to understand that we’re coming from different points, from different age ranges, different cultures and different backgrounds. That definition of what counts as a real job has changed.”

A career choice can be as much about personal worth as it is about a paycheck, for some.

“Where can I add value? Where’s a place that I can call home?” said Marsha Morgan, co-founder and former chairperson of the Birmingham Change Fund. “Where’s a place where I can feel like I’m an asset and give something back to the community that is recognized and received by my peers as well as elders in the community?”

Morgan views success in terms of how she is able to use her talents, but also “you do want to feel like you’re being compensated fairly,” she said.

Millennials also want flexible work schedules, said Anthony Hood, assistant professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at UAB’s Collat School of Business. If businesses want to retain millennials they need to start offering the incentives to attract them, he said.

“If you want them to fit into the box that you grew up [in], that’s not going to work,” he said.

Deontée Gordon, Director of Business Growth at REV Birmingham. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)
Deontée Gordon, Director of Business Growth at REV Birmingham. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)

Mentorship

Deontée Gordon, director of Business Growth at REV Birmingham, challenged older members at last week’s annual A.G. Gaston Conference held in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex to mentor the younger generation.

“You have a lot of wisdom and a lot of experiences that we have yet to collect, so . . . be intentional in reaching back,” he said.

However, because the job market is changing, so must the ways of mentoring, said many at the conference.

“You can’t put millennials in a box. There’s no one-size-fits-all category that you can operate with,” said Morgan. “[S]ometimes … the older generation has this more formal approach and this ‘wait-and-see’ mentality when it comes to standing to various positions and roles in the community.

“It’s very important that when you’re reaching back and giving your time, investing in a young millennial, don’t try to make it cookie cutter because of your experience. Look at that individual to see exactly how they need to be nurtured…so that you’re really adding value to their experience,” she said.

Davis’ magazine is an example of mentorship providing a path towards success.

As an alumnus of both the Innovation Depot and REV Birmingham’s Co.Starters program, which is a business development platform to help communities grow local business, the editor was able to expand her magazine.

Davis said that she could have lived in New York, working at fashion magazines; however, staying in Birmingham was important.  “I feel like I get to have more of an impact here,” she said. “… here I get to build something that doesn’t exist.”