Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is trying a unique strategy to get remote workers to return downtown: insulting them.
“I don’t know if you saw this study the other day,” Frey told an audience of 1,000 at Minneapolis Downtown Council’s annual meeting on Wednesday. “What this study clearly showed … is that when people who have the ability to come downtown to an office don’t — when they stay home sitting on their couch, with their nasty cat blanket, diddling on their laptop — if they do that for a few months, you become a loser!”
The comment was a “complete joke” and the study was made-up, the Minneapolis Mayor’s office told Fortune, but there are serious facts to back up Frey’s worry about the impact of remote work on Minneapolis’ downtown economy.
Minneapolis ranked 64th among 66 cities in downtown recovery from the pandemic, University of Toronto’s School of Cities reported in October. Visitors to the downtown area were 56% of what they were pre-COVID, according to cell phone use data collected through the study.
Along with the collapse of large retailers in the area, the Minneapolis Foundation-commissioned “Downtown Next” report from December attributed the city’s slow recovery to remote work, which “brought tectonic shifts to the daily office population.”
But besides pushing to convert downtown empty office buildings into retail and residential spaces and building pedestrian skyways, Minneapolis must address the lack of pull factors drawing young people into the city center, the report warned.
“Unless working, youth downtown have been relegated to ‘hanging out’ in the public realm, reinforcing fear about their presence,” it read.
This is a particularly big issue for Minneapolis, which, along with St. Paul, is the most desirable location for Gen Z. Over 23,000 Zoomers moved to the Twin Cities from another state in 2022, according to Business Journal analysis of Census Bureau data.
It’s one thing to want to lure Gen Z downtown, but what happens when they don’t want to leave their houses?
Gen Z prefers laptop diddling and nasty cat blankets to going out
Despite young people being drawn to Minneapolis’ community of young professionals and low unemployment rate, they’re still complaining about it being too expensive. Most young renters reported spending over 30% of their income on housing. It’s a trend that’s replicated across the country, leading Gen Z to be more careful about how they spend their money. That means less going out and more staying in.
Almost three in four Zoomers adjusted spending habits due to high prices, BofA’s 2023 Better Money Habits Survey reported, which included not eating out or buying new clothes. Nearly all of the survey’s participants wanting to curtail spending habits planned to do so for the entire year.
Gen Z’s money anxiety has created a culture of staying in and getting to bed early. Instead of going out to drink, they’ll imbibe or consume cannabis in the comfort of their homes — but their interest in booze lags behind older generations. In addition to citing personal finances for their homebody practices, Gen Z is also wary of the health and wellness concerns around drinking alcohol, and pandemic-induced social anxiety has stoked their introverted tendencies.
For young people who do want to go out, there’s fewer options available, as ”third places” such as bars, cafes, and parks have dwindled, creating fewer opportunities for connection and fanning the flames of Gen Z’s loneliness epidemic that keeps them feeling isolated and staying in.
There is some hope for cities relying on young people to revive sleepy downtowns. Some millennials and Gen Zers have given up on saving for retirement; instead, they want to travel, go to concerts, or enjoy spending sprees. If Minneapolis’ mayor can’t convince people to return to the workplace, maybe he can convince young people to spend more — starting with a new cat blanket.