By Rebecca Liebson
When Brian Oakes graduated from Binghamton University in spring of 2015, he was left with no choice but to move back in with his parents in Garden City and commute to his internship in Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad.
A year later, when his boss came to him with a full time job offer that would allow him to move out, Oakes jumped at the opportunity. But there was a catch: he would have to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“After college I don’t think anyone wants to go back home,” he said. “As soon as I could do it I kind of wanted to be on my own.”
Oakes is part of a growing subset of millennials who have abandoned their hometowns on Long Island in search of better opportunities elsewhere. census data compiled by the Long Island Association, a group promoting economic development, found that in 2015 there were about 100,000 fewer 20-34-year-olds living in the region than there had been in 1990.
A shortage of viable housing options has contributed to this issue. In a 2015 survey from the Long Island Index, a policy group funded by the Rauch Foundation, 69 percent of respondents ages 18-34 said they planned on leaving Nassau or Suffolk in search of low-cost housing.
“Millennials tend to get married later and raise a family later so they don’t want to start with an investment in a single family home,” Mitch Pally, CEO of the the Long Island Builders Institute said. “They’re looking for rental properties and other low cost opportunities for living which Long Island has been lacking in the past.”
The over-saturation of single family homes in the area can be traced back to Long Island’s history as a post- World War II suburb.
“People have mainly come here to escape urban conditions in the city of New York,” Dave Kapell, a consultant for the Rauch Foundation, said. “One of the rallying cries you see in opposition to these types of projects is that ‘we don’t want to become Queens.’”
“People are fearful that apartment buildings are going to bring in low income tenants,” Christopher Jones, Senior Vice President and Chief Planner for the Regional Plan Association, said. “There’s still a strong racial bias element that plays into this.”
Despite this complicated past, Jones said the exodus of millennials coupled with an increase in baby boomers looking to downsize their homes is causing the tide to shift. “You still have a lot of political resistance but that I think has been lessened as people have seen more and more places that have actually redeveloped their downtowns with multifamily housing and well designed mixed use development.”
As municipalities across the Island break ground on downtown revitalization projects, many have seized the opportunity as a way to draw in young renters. The village of Farmingdale, for instance, has embraced a strategy called “transit oriented development,” building 250 multi-family housing units within walking distance of the train station.
“It’s convenient for young people who work in Brooklyn and Manhattan but also good economically,” Ralph Ekstrand, Mayor of Farmingdale, said. “It pumps a tremendous amount of money into the downtown and has brought new businesses that cater to younger demographics.”
Offering commuter-friendly housing options has been successful in places like Farmingdale, where Penn Station is just a 45 minute train ride away. But in more remote areas of Suffolk County, where LIRR service to the city is much less accessible, the idea of commuting is enough to convince some millennials to leave the area altogether.
Take 24-year-old Will Schneider for example. Shortly after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Schneider moved from his Suffolk County home to Boston, where he took a high-paying job as a software engineer for TripAdvisor.
“The first job offer I accepted out of college would have been in New York City but I couldn’t afford to rent there on the salary I was offered so I would have been living at home with my parents in King’s Park,” he said. “I crunched the numbers and the time it would have taken me to commute into the city and back everyday would have been approximately as long as my work day. It just wasn’t worth it.”
Turned off by the idea of commuting, Schneider tried to look for jobs on the Island, but the offers available in the local tech industry were nothing compared to what he could find in an urban center. “You don’t see Amazon or Google opening an office on Long Island, especially since it’s in the shadows of New York City.”
With the future of Long Island’s workforce on the line, business leaders are scrambling to figure out how they can convince young people to stay.
The Hauppauge Industrial Park is the second largest industrial park in the nation. With 1,400 businesses and 55,000 employees total, roughly 1 in 20 Long Island workers has a job at the park. Despite this, Joe Campolo, Board of Directors for the Hauppauge Industrial Association, said that very few young people even know the park exists.
“Honestly we just have not done a good job partnering with and marketing to Stony Brook University which is a shame,” Campolo said, adding that the nearby research university could be an invaluable supply of fresh talent.
Enlisting the help of three Stony Brook MBA students, the board hopes to create a more formal relationship with the school. In the future, they want to hold on-campus job fairs and establish more internship programs.
“We have a challenge insofar as New York City is 30 miles west of us,” Campolo said. “But not everybody is going to get a job at Facebook or Google. We want to be able to say to the students, ‘here are great companies and great job opportunities for you to say right here on Long Island.’”
As more and more baby boomers near retirement age, the fate of Long Island’s economy could hinge on its ability to retain millennials. “By 2025, 90 percent of the workforce is going to be the millennial generation,” Campolo said. “We have no choice but to compete for the best and the brightest.”
In order to do so, Kapell said it is imperative for older members of the community to open themselves up to change. “It’s my generation that got us where we are now, but it’s not our vision that’s going to dictate going forward, it’s the millennials,” he said. “It’s a hard process. Old dogs don’t learn new tricks too well, but it’s not impossible.”