Are We The Go-Nowhere Generation?

Oh, New York Times, what will you think of next?

A couple days ago, economist Todd Buchholz and his daughter Victoria Buchholz, published an op-ed in the newspaper of record about young Americans and their resistance to moving.  Before you get too offended, he isn’t commenting on America’s obesity problem but rather, the fact that, despite rising unemployment and a tightening job market, 20-somethings are refusing to move.  The Buchholz’ point to Census Data, the number of post-collegiates still living at home, car ownership, and Facebook (the cause of societal ills, I’m sure) to illustrate their theory.

It’s an interesting theory and one that bears out at least in terms of some anecdotal evidence.  Aside from the handful of personal examples they use in the my article, my own experience proves their initial point: have only lived a handful of places – Texas (born and raised, 18 years), northern Virginia, central Virginia, and then back to northern Virginia.  Those locations have covered a variety of circumstances and employment situations but for the most part, I have never actively pursued moving or living in just any old place.  So, even if the Buchholz’ statistical evidence is shaky (and it is), I’m willing to cede the point that our generation may not be hitting the road as we once did.

However, what really starts to irk me is the implication that because we aren’t traveling cross-country or changing zip codes every few years, we’re a lesser generation.  Buchholz laments:

In the mid-’70s, back when every high school kid longed for his driver’s license and a chance to hit the road and find freedom, Bruce Springsteen wrote his brilliant, exciting album “Born to Run.” A generation later, as kids began to hunker down, Mr. Springsteen wrote his depressing, dead-end dirge, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” We need to reward and encourage forward movement, not slouching. That may sound harsh, but do we really want to turn into a country where young Americans can’t even recognize the courage of Tom Joad?

According to Buccholz’ logic, Generation Y will become Generation Why Bother if they don’t long to “hit the road” and move around the way that our wiser forefathers did.  Instead of possibly exploring the concept of virtual movement and growth or a more economic discussion on factors that may limit the ability to change locations, the authors just chalk it all up to Internet-fueled laziness and paint a picture of a generation of do-nothings who lack the passion and drive of Tom Joad.  Also, spoiler alert, in Grapes of Wrath, parole-jumper Tom ultimately ends up killing a dude, so I don’t know if he’s an ideal role model.

Thankfully, the Atlantic published a strong rebuttal to the piece, agreeing that Americans aren’t moving as frequently as in the past but offering some alternative views as to why.  Derek Thompson points out that factors such as staggering student loan debt, a difficult housing market, and the collapse of suburban growth which the Buchholz piece completely ignores.

It seems to me that New York Times is once again publishing a silly little “trend” piece just to stir up some web traffic and Internet debate – but it might be a discussion worth having.  Even though I vehemently disagree with the assessment that our generation isn’t going anywhere metaphorically, perhaps there’s an economic imperative to encourage us to literally get moving.  And maybe we’re born to run in a different way – expanding our careers, social lives, and community impact globally through virtual connectivity.  Our lives may  not be like a Springsteen song but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a soundtrack of our own.

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6 thoughts on “Are We The Go-Nowhere Generation?

  1. Really enjoyed your commentary on this. I’m tempted to agree with the Atlantic’s rebuttal; I would argue a challenging economy for the post-collegiate generation is the primary reason for less movement. Oh you trendy New York Times . . . too much! 😉

    • Thanks so much for the kind words!

      I’ll never stop reading the NYT, because come on, it’s the NYT, but at least once a week I have to initiate a serious eyeroll sequence over some ridiculous op-ed like this one. I think the Atlantic took a much more detailed and balanced look at an issue that may be defining characteristic for our generation.

  2. This makes me laugh. Let’s see, since I graduated, I’ve lived & worked in five cities in five states/provinces, in three countries, not counting when I was home for extended periods of time.

    Call me the exception. 😉

  3. For an economist the authorize ignores same basic logic. He cites a statistic which indicates a decrease in drivers license applications in 2008…a year in which the market was down by half. An additional licensed driver (that is young) increases the insurance bill of the household dramatically… it would be illogical to increase expenses in a down market for something the is NOT a necessary expense.

    Should the young people have applied for a license, the article would have been titled “generation go for broke”.

    Can’t win with economists…which is why it is the only profession that makes astrology look respectful.

    PS. I am an economist, that quit morgan stanley in 2010 to travel the world… nothing like a little self deprecating humor!

    • Thanks so much for your comment! Always nice to have an economist’s point of view!

      I think driver’s licenses is a bit of a ridiculous way to monitor movement across the country. Just because you have a license doesn’t mean you’re driving – and even if you are driving, it doesn’t mean you’re going any further than five miles away (or you could be going across the country – there’s no way to measure that based on license ownership alone.) I have a driver’s license in paper only – I don’t have a car and prefer to take public transportation, bike, or walk whenever possible. I don’t think this makes me less adventurous or driven than past generations to explore – I just prefer to take an eco-conscious (and economic) mode to get there!

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