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Hometown loyalty

The New York Times yesterday published an opinion piece, “The Go-Nowhere Generation.”  The authors are concerned at what looks to them like a new tendency for young people to remain living in their hometowns rather than moving on in pursuit of opportunity.  The concern is that this apparent lack of initiative on the part of “Generation Y” is going to further stall economic growth.

I sincerely hope the authors are wrong in their analysis.  

First, I’m no social scientist, but I’m not sure their historical examples really support the idea that it has always been the preferred and default position of Americans that moving away from home is best.  Their examples:  the Pilgirms (who were fleeing religious persecution), Hemingway (who spent some time in Paris writing about home and then moved back to that home), WWII solidiers (who left home for a few years to defend their home) and the Peace Corps.  So, first of all, there’s a 300-year gap in that historical narrative.  Second, Hemingway and the WWII soldiers weren’t exactly leaving home.  And, come to think of it, the Peace Corps lasts only two years.  Are we supposed to believe that these examples point to an established habit of leaving home among young Americans?  

Yet, the authors do have some statistics on their side when they point out that 20-somethings are forty percent less likely to move to another state than they were in the ’80s.  I wasn’t a 20-something in the 80’s  but I definitely have memories from the nineties of high school teachers encouraging me to “get out of this town”–referring to the small, run-down, New England, mill town I grew up in.  The prevailing attitude seemed to be that only the dropouts and deadbeats would remain living in our hometown.  Those of us who wanted to be successful would move on.  

I bought in to that attitude completely.  By the time of my first trip home during my freshmen year of college (I went to a private school near Boston, about ninety minutes from home) I had developed a healthy distaste for my hometown.  After college I moved to Washington and then to Minnesota where we were living, sort of, in my husband’s home town.  And there, finally, things began to thaw for me.  I’ve already spent some time writing about that but I want to add that the real paradigm shift came for me from a surprising place:  Facebook.

I joined Facebook, very reluctantly, just before moving away from Minnesota (according to Facebook, I joined on my birthday).  I joined only because I wanted to keep up with family, in particular my younger cousins who have all been moving into adulthood over the last few years.  But, of course, I was quickly sniffed out by my many old high school friends.  I hadn’t spoken to a single one of them since the Thanksgiving after graduation (a fact I’m not proud of) but suddenly I had a little window into their lives and the thing that stood out to me more than anything else was that the vast majority (yes, even the “successful” ones) still lived in my hometown and many of them were still good friends who regularly got together.  I was shocked.  

And it finally dawned on me that I  was probably the screwed up one in this scenario.  And maybe the trend noticed in this New York Times piece is the beginning of a cultural awakening.  Maybe (among other things, surely) the time young people spend on Facebook (rather than driving) is an effort to stay connected, to stay rooted to home.  Maybe that poor guy who turned down his dream of teaching high school so he could stay in his hometown working in the tire factory realizes that there are things more important than one’s day job.  Maybe less kids are getting their driver’s licenses because they’re actually fine carpooling with friends and living a slower, simpler lifestyle.

Some of the evidence in the article seems to support the idea that Generation Y does seem to have a laziness problem.  But I think the parents of the current young people bear as much responsibility for this as the kids themselves.  We often think in dismay about our neighborhood baker.  Georgie’s grandfather founded this bakery in 1903.  Georgie’s father took over from him and Georgie himself began his apprenticeship–both in the baking trade and in the habits of hard work and discipline–as a small boy.  Georgie has two children.  His daughter just started college and his son is about to graduate in May.  But he’s already making plans to close his business in a few years when he retires.  A century-old artisan bakery will close its doors for lack of an heir.  We’ve asked Georgie a few times why his son won’t take over.  And the answers are consistent:  his son didn’t grow up in the business so he’s not ready for the hard work required and Georgie doesn’t want him to take over.  Georgie moved his family way out to the suburbs rather than keeping them living in one of the houses he owns in our urban neighborhood just steps from the bakery.  

Meanwhile, his son is graduating in the face of 8% unemployment and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have preferred to inherit an established business in what might have been his hometown.  I just can’t see that the “Go-Nowhere Generation” has it all wrong.

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