The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Young Wanderers: Where my Generation is Headed and How We’re Getting There

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Almost every week, I come across a new article along the lines of “Where Millenials are Making It” or “Cities for Young People Today.” The US Census even came out with an app called Dwellr that allows you to fill out a profile based on your preferences for city size, transportation, education levels and more. Then the app suggests ideal places for you to live. It’s fun. You should try it. And while it’s not technically billed for young people, the idea of a seventy-year-old grandma flicking through her iPhone to decide where to relocate seems a bit farfetched, so I’m going to go ahead and say it’s geared towards us.

Obviously, the question of where a millenial can “make it” is important to me at this time in my life—I’m young (for now) and I’m about to make another career move, and probably half a dozen more after that in the next few decades. My peers are also contemplating similar questions about where to move and why. We weigh our job prospects, our family connections, our romantic relationships, our income levels, our personal networks, our geographic preferences and probably our senses of adventure to help us to determine whether to stay or to go. And if we’re going, then where to?

The US Census estimates that on average, an eighteen-year-old can look forward to about nine moves in the rest of his or her lifetime. However, mobility in young Americans is also at a fifty-year low, with less than a quarter of 25-29 year olds having relocated in the last year. It’s no wonder that we are all less mobile, though, given that our average student debt is $28,000, our job prospects are scarce, and the degrees that we paid so much for have depleted in value in the global market. We’re still moving—that’s inevitable—but we’re thinking more carefully about where we’ll be able to get by, and where it might not be worth the struggle.

So honestly, I wonder how much we can talk in terms of “preference” for location at all. Ask most post-grads where they want to move and they’ll answer: wherever they can get a job. Wherever. Maybe a few years down the line we’ll be able to talk about slightly more ideal situations, like having our own apartments and interviewing for a couple jobs before we choose the one that suits us best. Maybe we’ll even be able to get married—something our generation has been accused of delaying and devaluing—when the truth for many young couples is that they feel it’s unaffordable to buy a ring or hold a wedding right now. As young people, our decisions often end up being guided by the amount of money in our bank accounts over everything else, and yet our mentors, relatives and teachers are urging us to let our hearts determine our futures. With cheery smiles, they assert that because it was possible for their generation, we too can find the perfect, well-paying job if only we would look.

A friend recently linked to this article by Miya Tokumitsu which discusses the warped, classist and falsely optimistic nature of this attitude, encapsulated in the phrase “do what you love.” It’s a phrase that is supposed to encourage young people to pursue their dreams in a world of limitless opportunity, but in fact, as Tokumitsu writes, the ability to do what you love is only available to certain people with privilege. A recent college graduate swimming in debt may not be drumming or writing or building what he “loves” for several decades. A young mother won’t be taking the job she dreamt of as a teenager; she’ll be taking the one that pays enough to cover the cost of daycare. Tokumitsu also states that “do what you love” intimates a certain type of work—“creative, intellectual, socially prestigious”—and leaves no room for the work that millions of people must engage in just to get by.

By prioritizing passion, we devalue the labor of factory workers, accountants and bus drivers, when many of us should be happy with employment in one of these positions if it means food on the table and a roof over our heads. We may even find fulfillment in it. Tokumitsu also adds significantly that, when young people are pushed to “do what they love,” they are essentially being told that their ultimate joy should be derived primarily from their jobs—that if they have the perfect job, everything else will fall into place. This is not a constructive attitude for anyone, but it is especially problematic those of us who are beginning to venture into new careers and new places. I don’t think we’ll find what we’re looking for if we cling to this romantic understanding of career fulfillment and calling.

So how am I making my decision about where to go and how to get there? It’s one part careful planning and two parts leaping into the unknown.  I am seeking the input of people I trust, listening to my intuition, and praying for guidance, while allowing myself—and this is utterly challenging for a planner like me—to be lead by whatever forces may compel me when the time comes. That includes my desire to be with people I care about, to be in a place that feels like home, and yes, to work a job that holds my interest as much as possible. I’m not naïve enough to think that I can do what I love 24-7, or even 40 hours a week. Rather, I know that love comes to those who seek wholeness in every corner of their lives.

Deciding where to go is an act we will participate in over and over again throughout the course of our lives. For my fellow millenials and me, these years can be viewed as a practice round in which a few mistakes and false starts will make us stronger and readier for what’s ahead. We should take into account the recommendations and guidance of people that we trust, but we shouldn’t assume that they’ll lead us to the perfect place any more than an app will.  Our generation may have a longer road to travel before we can afford the lives that we dream of, so go where you will, do what you can, and be patient in the pursuit of joy.

Related articles around the internet:
Fascinating series about cities for millenials, from The Atlantic
Stop Trashing Millenials,” from CNN
This post I wrote last week about mobility


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