Can Millenials Live the American Dream in Sarasota?

Millennials face more economic hurdles than previous generations.

By Cooper Levey-Baker January 2, 2014

What American Dream?

Though young people in Sarasota often make headlines by advocating for more live music and urban amenities, millennials here—and all over the country—face deeper problems than limited nightlife options.

Millennials are better educated than their parents, yet they are much less likely to earn a decent living. This summer, the Urban Institute found that while the wealth of those 47 and older doubled between 1983 and 2010, people 46 and younger saw no increase in wealth whatsoever. Even after the recession, baby boomers and their parents are thriving, while today's young people face the prospect of becoming an economic Lost Generation. in which millennials are perversely much better educated than their parents and yet much less likely to earn a decent living.

For one thing, they are facing an unprecedented level of student debt: nearly $1 trillion, almost triple what it was in 2004, according to a 2012 Federal Reserve report. The National Center for Education Statistics found that college expenses increased 71 percent between 2000 and 2010, while congressional inaction this year caused interest rates on federal loans to double.

Then there is the spiking number of unpaid internships. In 1992, just 17 percent of undergraduates held internships, both paid and unpaid, according to The New York Times. But in 2013, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that 48 percent of undergraduates had participated in unpaid internships. Those opportunities rarely translate into actual job offers, the organization found. After graduation, the picture doesn't get prettier. According to a Census report generated with a statistical tool called the Gini index, household income inequality grew by 18 percent nationally between 1967 and 2012. The nation's Gini score was .467 in 2012; Sarasota County's was .483, placing it in the top 10 percent of counties nationwide for income inequality.

Other studies have confirmed just how hard it is get ahead in Sarasota. In a report that examined social mobility, the Equality of Opportunity Project ranked Sarasota 66th out of 100 metropolitan areas. The chance for a young person in Sarasota to climb from the bottom fifth of income to the top fifth is just 7 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Sarasota County families living below the poverty level grew from 6.8 percent in 1990 to 7.6 percent in 2000 to 12.8 percent in 2010. One out of every five children here now lives below the poverty level.

Statewide, while headlines have trumpeted our declining unemployment rate, the picture remains bleak for the young. The unemployment rate for Floridians between the ages of 16 and 19 is 23.5 percent ,and it's 14.3 percent for those between the ages of 20 and 24.

Sebrena Pawley is a youth career planner with Suncoast Workforce who has worked with 16- to 21-year-olds from the Newtown area. She helps them develop career skills and education plans, but her classes are also opportunities for the students to learn how to dress appropriately for the office and how to cope with the presence of violence and drugs in their neighborhood. The majority of them want to go into the health care field, one of the region's top employment sectors, but Pawley also tries to push them to develop tech skills. Still, most of the kids who attend her workshops are planning to leave the area.

"I don't see much opportunity in Sarasota for youth," Pawley says. "It's mind-boggling how difficult it is."

Cathaleen Kaiyoorawongs, the director of education initiatives with Unidos Now, a Sarasota nonprofit dedicated to helping Hispanic communities integrate, sees a similar picture for young Latinos. While Sarasota is still overwhelmingly white (90.2 percent compared to the national average of 77.9 percent), its Hispanic population is growing rapidly. According to Census Bureau data, in Sarasota County, the number of Hispanics more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, from 14,000 to 30,000, while the white population grew just 13 percent.

Those Latinos make up a big chunk of young Sarasota, Edmondson notes. It's no coincidence that the neighborhood of Kensington Park is one of Sarasota's youngest, as well as one-quarter Hispanic. Edmondson says Sarasota's young Latinos are largely the sons and daughters of immigrants who came here starting in the 1980s. "Those kids are now moving into the labor force and that's a big story," he says. "It's not an immigrant story. It's the next chapter in the assimilation saga that has been a continuous part of American history, and it's definitely happening in Sarasota."

"The booming young population in this community will be Hispanic," Kaiyoorawongs says. "They're reproducing at a way higher rate."

Kaiyoorawongs works with young people, the vast majority of them Hispanic, who are the first in their families to attend college. She says a number of factors, from families that pressure them to work rather than study, to misguided scholarship initiatives, prevent many who enroll from finishing their degrees. Only 8 percent of low-income first-generation college students eventually graduate, she says.

"We're really creating this sub-class of people," she says. "People that are low-income and don't have an education, they're not succeeding."

Kaiyoorawongs and Unidos Now Director of Social Justice Jeanette Ocasio say Sarasota leaders are increasingly aware of the need to reach out to Latinos, but segregation remains a problem. The University of Michigan's Population Studies Center publishes segregation indices based on census data. Its analysis found that Hispanic-white segregation in the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice region actually increased between 1990 and 2000 and dropped only slightly between 2000 and 2010. Ocasio says civic leaders and higher education institutions are contacting Unidos Now to ask for help reaching Hispanics, while at the same time the community is using the organization as a way to reach policymakers.

While Kaiyoorawongs focuses on helping students obtain college degrees, she acknowledges the challenges in finding a career here after graduation. "If you're not an attorney or a doctor or you don't want to start a business, what do you do?" she says. "I have no idea."

So far, young people have not made much of a mark upon the region's public or economic policy, says former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton. "I don't see [them] building the lasting relationships with policymakers that will get them the living environment they want, and what I believe is the living environment that will make Sarasota a better place for all age groups," says Thaxton. Young people also don't vote in local elections, he points out. More voters over the age of 90 than under 30 turned out for this March's city election, says Thaxton.

And though Sarasota today has both more young people and more opportunities and amenities for them than ever before, demographic trends make it crystal-clear that they won't be transforming the basic nature of the county any time soon. Economic analysts agree that retiring baby boomers, along with tourism, will fuel the county's economy at least through the next decade, ensuring that real estate and services for seniors and visitors will continue to be where the jobs are. And in addition to the older newcomers who will be arriving, the seniors who are already here will keep living longer. In fact, even though the overall number of young adults will grow as the population increases, demographic projections show the percentage of residents 18-34 will peak at just under 15 percent in 2015, and then steadily decline through 2030. In fact, between 2010 and 2012, while cool new restaurants and clubs kept opening up, Sarasota County, already the oldest large county in the United States, actually got older.

Percentage of Population That is Working Age (Between 20-64)

2010 Census

53%                                      60%

Sarasota County                 United States

2020 Projection

51%                                      57%

Sarasota County                 United States

2030 Projection

47%                                      55%

Sarasota County                 United States

2040 Projection

47%                                      54%

Sarasota County                 United States

Click here to read four young people's experiences about living and working in Sarasota. >>

This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine. Like what you read? Click here to subscribe. >>