Lifestyle drives today's workers

New Economy employees want outdoor cafes and bike paths - and they're choosing jobs in cities that have them.

In selecting a place to begin his dotcom career, Andy Peretti says his preeminent concern was "lifestyle-related issues." He wanted "a real melting-pot place," and chose San Francisco.

For Jonathan Kolko, an expert in human-computer interaction, the essential ingredients for a place to live and work after college were mountain-bike trails and a thriving music scene. By year's end, he'll be a new resident of Austin, Texas.

Unlike generations of American workers before them, today's New Economy workers are choosing where to live and work based heavily on lifestyle considerations. As Mr. Kolko, from Pittsburgh, puts it: "It's not just about where the job is. It's more about where the life I want to live is."

The emerging trend runs counter to the stereotype of technology workers as work-obsessed and driven only by a gold-rush mentality. More importantly, it shows that the dynamic that has ruled work-related settlement patterns in the United States for decades - where companies decided where to locate and workers followed - is being turned on its head. "It's the location of workers that drives the location of industry in the New Economy," says Rob Atkinson, a technology specialist at the Progressive Policy Institute. "It always used to be that workers followed companies."

Whether it's a vibrant nightclub scene, recreational facilities, or just that indefinable sense of "coolness," cities and communities that offer more than a good job are the new magnets. The dynamic is powerful enough, say experts, that it is slowly changing the way communities think about growth and development.

The older approach of luring companies with tax abatements and free sewer hookups is slowly giving way to greater emphasis on improving amenities and quality of life. The thinking is that being attractive to workers is the first step to economic development. Companies will move where they think workers want to be.

In Houston, for instance, the preferences of New Economy workers are "forcing us to face quality-of-life issues more than we used to," says City Councilman Chris Bell. "Over the past year or so, I've seen this changing dynamic. Most people in economic development are just awakening to this."

Known for its laissez-faire, pro-business attitude, Houston is now intent on improving air quality, expanding green space, sprucing up neglected parks, and expanding bike lanes. The approach, notes Mr. Bell, not only works for longtime residents, but can help the city develop economically by making it more appealing to the new waves of "knowledge workers."

Prosperity is helping propel this new worker-driven phenomenon. For generations, college graduates have weighed career and lifestyle options in deciding where to settle down. But career considerations typically had the upper hand when unemployment rates were higher and society was accustomed to greater swings between growth and recession.

Today, though, young New Economy workers who have experienced nothing but prosperity and opportunity are making decisions about where to live knowing they can be more selective. The New Economy is also highly entrepreneurial, giving skilled workers greater independence about where they locate. "We're seeing a big value shift in America," says Richard Florida, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Of course, job and lifestyle are not mutually exclusive. Location decisions still often have a key economic component. Salary, according to a 1998 KPMG survey of high-tech workers, was the top consideration. But it was followed by "community quality-of-life" factors, which outstripped stock options, other economic benefits, and even company stability as key criteria.

Lifestyle considerations have made Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington magnets for New Economy workers. Silicon Valley, the granddaddy of high technology, has, at least up to now, offered its own amenity advantages, ranging from sunny weather to a nearby coastline and the intellectual juice of Stanford University.

But Silicon Valley, like some other established tech centers, is losing appeal, as housing prices soar, traffic thickens, and open space succumbs to development. Austin, too, has suffered some unintended consequences of its success in attracting New Economy workers, including dirtier air and clogged traffic.

The key, say experts, is to find the balance where the lifestyle amenities that attract New Economy workers are not then trampled. Austin, in particular, gets high marks by some analysts for recognizing what Florida calls the "danger of cannibalizing the very thing that is drawing new workers."

Quality-of-life issues have been rising in importance for all Americans in recent years. But experts see the lifestyle preferences of New Economy workers adding a kick to the trend. This new workforce can be politically persuasive in ways narrower constituencies, whether environmentalists or slow-growth advocates, cannot.

Interestingly, the lifestyle features that appeal to young New Economy workers are not identical with those sought by more traditional demographic groups. Florida says the social and cultural amenities that held appeal in the past were more passive (symphony, opera, ballet) and more expensive (pro sports arenas).

While New Economy workers value those, they are secondary, says Florida, to "more casual, open, inclusive, and participative activities," ranging from rowing and cycling facilities to outdoor cafes. The emphasis on lifestyle is giving hope to smaller communities largely left out of the technology revolution. Two areas to watch: Burlington, Vt., and Cedar City, Utah.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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