The new geography of being young in America.
My generation, the Millennials, are infamously the first Americans who are not necessarily expected to do better than their parents. Having come of age during the Great Recession and now a long-lived weak job market, the assumption is not only that we'll be less wealthy, but that the traditional markers of adulthood will be delayed. Or never achieved at all.
Yet this worry also assumes today's twentysomethings are aiming for the same things as previous generations: either to make it big in the major cities that have traditionally held the promise of success, or to settle down in the house with the white picket fence in the suburbs. Some of us certainly still yearn for this paradigm, but most of us are adjusting our expectations. We’re realizing that those big, bustling cities have become unaffordable for those of us just starting out. And the house in the suburbs, with its long commutes and high gas bills, doesn’t fare much better. So where does a Millennial turn?
I traveled across the country for six weeks in search of the best, most affordable places for twentysomethings to achieve their goals nowadays—whether it’s to start a business, live off their art, have kids earlier, or just finally find a fulltime job. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing what I found.
But first, let’s define some terms. I avoided cities already deemed magnets for young, creative people—place like New Orleans, Austin, or Detroit. Along the way, I was able to find nine cities where more young people than you might realize are trying to make it work in 2013, and they fit into four basic categories:
Small Ponds for Big Fish
These are cities where creativity and entrepreneurship are on the rise, even as the rents remain reasonable. Chances are, small ponds have DIY art scenes: Omaha boasts a thriving start-up economy and the still-relevant force of Conor Oberst’s Saddle Creek Records while Jackson’s Fondren and Midtown neighborhoods have sparked a local art community. Yet even in the gentrified corners of town, the price points remain low by necessity, since most people aren’t making much money. And since there isn’t a shortage of space, local politicos are practically begging young people to take abandoned buildings and empty lots off their hands. Many of the twentysomethings I spoke with in these towns were on a first-name basis with the mayor or city council. One Jackson native was even running for office. These cities have a growing population of young people who would rather start something from the ground up and live cheaply than scramble anonymously in huge cities.
The Gems Next Door
These more modestly sized, vibrant cities tend to be adjacent to giant ones. They mimic some of the charms of their bigger siblings, but at a dramatically reduced price point. In places like Milwaukee and Jersey City, local governments are more accessible, and the likelihood of being able to buy property or pay rent without scrambling is far higher. In each case, places like Chicago or New York are short drives or train rides away, but Jersey City and Milwaukee are more than mere commuter towns—they have attracted a niche of young people invested in their communities.
Towns Luring Back Their Townies
Countless trend stories have been written about young, ambitious people flocking to Detroit because it’s cheaper and in need of fresh ideas. But smaller post-industrial cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh (and its neighboring suburb, Braddock) aren’t under the same spotlight, and most of the young people taking advantage of their virtues are natives. They’ve been there along, reasoning that the economy was too precarious for them to take a risk in a bigger city where had far fewer connections. Or they’ve returned after college or a disappointing stint in a major metropolis, realizing that they need their hometown just as much as their hometown needs them. Albuquerque has been retaining some of its natives, too, especially those who initially flocked to super-pricey California and realized that their quieter, cheaper hometown was the ideal place to ride out the recession.
Budget Boom Towns
Not every Millennial wants to be an artist or a web designer. Some of us just want a steady 9-to-5 in a city we can afford, so we can achieve at least some of the same milestones our parents did. San Antonio and Houston are keeping the American dream relatively intact. They’re both growing cities with young populations and impressively low unemployment rates. Houston is dominated by oil money, which provides energy jobs and trickles down to its excellent art and restaurant scene. San Antonio has a thriving technology sector and offers a cheaper, chiller alternative to Austin. These cities both have millions of people, but they’re still incredibly affordable—many young people I spoke to, even working class ones, have been able to buy property and start a family without financial hardship.
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One note before we proceed: The opportunities I describe above weren’t available to every twentysomething; in every city I visited, there was a low-income side of town that was excluded from these burgeoning communities. (The size of this chasm varied wildly; Jackson’s art scene was a lot less homogenous in terms of class and race than, say, Omaha’s.) Still, I factored the chance for upward mobility in my decisions. Mostly, I chose these cities for their potential to fit into new paradigms of what Millennials want for the future: fulfilling jobs; affordability; creative and diverse communities; and a sense of ownership and influence.
I look forward to exploring these cities with you over the next two weeks!
This series was produced in part with assistance from the Roosevelt Institute.
Top image (clockwise from top left): San Antonio (Jo Ann Snover/Shutterstock.com); Jersey City (SeanPavonePhoto /Shutterstock.com); Albuquerque (gary yim/Shutterstock.com); Pittsburgh (Sahani Photography /Shutterstock.com)