Should Millennials Feel Guilty for Leaving Their Small Towns Behind?

Growing up, I couldn't wait to flee central Indiana. Now I just feel lucky, and terrible.

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As a 20-something escapee of a small Midwestern town, I found myself sinking into my seat as I watched last winter’s dark comedy hit Young Adult. In the film, Charlize Theron plays a bitingly cruel young adult fiction ghost writer, Mavis Gary, who makes a spectacularly ill-fated return to her hometown that ends with a bitter tirade aimed at her former high school classmates. Say what you will about entitled, lazy Millennials. But there’s at least a small subset of young, small town refugees who feel nothing but awe and gratitude that we were able to follow our dreams beyond the ‘burbs.

I’m from Anderson, a former General Motors town in central Indiana. We have a lot of churches, a horse racing track, a shopping mall built on a former landfill, and these days, fields of spiky weeds that completely cover any remnants of closed factories people simply referred to by number, buildings called “Plants 5 and 18.” (There’s also a well-respected liberal arts university, a beautiful historic downtown theater, and an iconic all-American diner called The Lemon Drop. But little of that mattered to 15-year-old me.) From my teenage point of view, there seemed to be two choices for young people growing up in Anderson. You could plant yourself, either intentionally or by letting inertia control your fate. (No one else leaves; why would you?) Or you could flee.

Early on, I bought into the myth and the language of getting out. Leaving meant making it—it being the pursuit of some nebulous American Dream-type upward mobility. Even when teachers made snide remarks warning that nobody was special and a fancy education wasn’t good for anything, I knew I had to go. That my desire to leave so irked some adults actually made me think I was onto something. Looking back, I realize I was a brat who complained about feeling stuck and bragged about her escape route. That I actually left turned out to not really be the point. I couldn’t appreciate the things that made people stay. I’m one of those jerks who hightailed it out of town the moment I could.

And unlike Mavis Gary, I feel terrible about it.

My guilt is not unfounded. Though my making it out doesn’t preclude others from doing the same, the opportunities are vastly different for Gen Yers even five years apart. Last week, the Social Science Research Council reported that nearly one in seven young people (ages 16 to 24) are "disconnected" from work and school, meaning they neither work nor attend school. (Those of us inching closer to age 30 apparently have our own reasons to feel guilty.) And those are just the latest figures in what lately feels like an onslaught of depressing economic and migration trends among Millennials.

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More than half of all Americans currently live in the state in which they were born. Between 2007 and 2008, a mere 11 percent of Americans moved, the lowest domestic migration rate since 1948. Between 2007 and 2010, more than 1.2 million adult children were living at home with their parents (most of those adult children were between the ages of 25 and 34). Getting out isn’t necessarily unpopular. For many, especially young people only a few years my junior, it’s become something unattainable.

My friend Nick’s story is the most relatable among people I know. A Los Angeles-based writer, he grew up outside of Providence, Rhode Island. He always knew he wanted to move to a bigger city like New York or San Francisco, even though he couldn’t articulate why. But never good with money, it was a struggle—that is, until he literally won the lottery when he was 22. “I finally had the scratch to get out,” Nick says of the six grand or so he won from the state lotto office. “I get that my skills had something to do with how far I've gotten, but I think luck has a lot more to do with it.” I’m in a similar boat. Working 30-hour weeks as a waitress during high school, I banked most of my earnings and had several thousand dollars at my disposal when I left for college out of state. I didn’t exactly win sweepstakes money. But I was lucky enough to be able to earn decent grades while often ditching sculpture class and show choir practice for more lucrative pursuits.

Granted, one person doesn’t make or break a town. Most small communities are what they are because of a tradition of committed civic leaders who settled down and stayed put. I believe in the value of small communities, in part because I grew up in one. I want to see small towns to succeed. Big cities don’t necessarily need more knowledge workers, even if it’s where some of us feel more at home. The decision to leave, even though it will forever be the best one for me and many of my friends, is seen as downright selfish for a reason. It is.

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Glancing over our shoulders at the not-so-distant financial fallout of the past few years, my friends and I feel more than pride and joy. We feel profoundly guilty and deeply anxious. As the recession hit, more than a few of my urban transplant pals clung to the lives they’d made. We’ve watched the young people only a few years behind us scramble to find any—let alone decent—work and affordable urban housing. Often, we cringe when we read the reports or listen to their stories because we know that hard work only gets you so far. The rest really might as well be the same odds as buying a winning lottery ticket.

Despite the depressing stats, cities are growing faster than ever before. Earlier this summer, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed"Big cities boom as young adults shun suburbs." As Rolf Pendall recently pointed out, Gen Y urban transplants have helped repopulate America’s largest cities, many of which had seen declines in the past several decades. But Pendall also asks an important question—whether or not urbanite Millennials will stay put once they start families.

In San Francisco, where I’ve lived for the past year, not one of my friends is a Bay Area native. We don’t all hail from small Midwestern towns, but most came from places where they felt limited—small town Maine, suburban west Texas, California’s Central Valley and the Inland Empire. It’s easy to find people who will sneeringly complain about how trapped they felt as teenagers. It’s harder to talk about our nuanced realizations that in such dire economic times, maybe we just got extraordinarily lucky.

At our worst, Mavis Gary might be how we imagine ourselves. Self-absorbed urban transplants rightly earn a bad rap for our seemingly sudden inability to live without efficient mass transit, film screenings on early release dates, and $5 breakfast sandwiches from corner bodegas. Not everyone can arrive at his or her destination with humility and without the paranoid fear of backsliding. Even when we do, that makes for a far less interesting narrative.

Back to Pendall’s question. Will newly transplanted Echo Boomers stay put in the cities to which they’ve flocked? The oft-employed phrase “you can’t go home again” might seem especially salient here. But for me, the question isn’t whether I’ll stay or leave. The question is, where else would I go?

Photo credit: Robert Spriggs /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Brittany Shoot has written for Time, Mental Floss, Ms., and Salon. A former Bostonian and Copenhagener, she currently lives in downtown San Francisco.