How Gen X and Gen Y Will Change Philadelphia

And why it's time for boomers to step aside and let them

Nonprofit organization Campus Philly released survey results in December showing that more non-native university students than ever — 48 percent — are staying in the area post-graduation. When Claire Robertson-Kraft, who moved here from Texas to go to Penn, graduated in 2004, that figure was 29 percent.


“I was at Penn as an undergrad only because it was a good school,” says Robertson- Kraft, who at 29 is board chair of Young Involved Philadelphia, a group of civically minded folks whose typical ages are somewhere between 20 and 35. “Philly was a detractor if anything, because it didn’t have a strong reputation. But that’s changed. There’s a strong youth culture now. There are a lot of young organizations. Involvement looks different and feels different. The way people get their news and information is different. There’s been an explosion of online conversations and blogs.”

Take that, I say to the boomer editor who questioned whether today’s young people are too cynical to get involved.

“You don’t have to go to a community meeting at a certain time at a certain place to talk about certain things anymore. Social networking enables you to engage in different things at different times on the issues you want,” Friedman says. “I can’t make any meetings, but if there’s a PayPal account, I can give $100 now. Or, I don’t have time during the day, but I can give time from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.”
Take that, too. Besides, I argue we’re not that cynical after all. Despite the fact that our early presidential memories include a switch from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. We’re just more practical. Friedman agrees: “The new culture, we tend to be more pragmatic about how we address problems, less idealistic, less political.”

Where boomers felt compelled to take over the system, we’re just as happy to work around the system. The popularity of charter schools is one good example of that Gen X practicality. The rise of neighborhood associations is another. After all, we’re post-Nixon, post-Vietnam. Boomers who grew up trusting in institutions, believing government acted in their best interest, felt betrayed when that trust was broken. But Gen X and Gen Y? We’re post-betrayal. We’ve never believed in good government. Up-and-coming civic-minded leaders won’t try to change the old Philly ways as much as we’ll just flat-out ignore them.

A lot has been made of Philly’s seeming power vacuum, but I think that’s because the city that owes its little slice of progressiveness to singular forces of nature like Sister Mary Scullion or Jane Golden or even Willard Rouse III is probably looking in the wrong place for leaders. Gen Y is decidedly group-fueled in contrast to the trademark boomer individualists. Instead of boldface names, we’ll have boldface organizations, like Young Involved Philadelphia. “There’s been an increase in civic engagement,” says Robertson-Kraft. “There are a lot of young organizations. Now our role is to connect those groups.”