Given my age, a common question I get these days (besides when I’m getting married) is “when are you moving back home?”
As I get older and endure another east coast winter, the thought of moving back to my original hood becomes even more appealing. Family, close friends, and the familiarity are alluring variables in today’s uncertain world.
Amidst the popular yearning to comprehend rural America and escape big city madness, it has become increasingly fashionable to want to be a “homecomer,” a term coined by Kentucky writer Wendell Berry describing people who have spent some time away in metropolitan areas eventually to return home.
When Mr. Berry introduced this term in a commencement address in 2009, he argued graduates would be more responsible citizens if they focused on being good stewards of their town rather than focusing on their own upward mobility.
Last week another writer, inspired by Mr. Berry’s words, penned a touching piece urging urban dwellers with small town ties to return back home. The author, Michelle Anderson, argued that one’s presence in smaller communities can make greater strides in pressing challenges like racial justice, gender discrimination, and economic inequality.
But for those large area living, tiny town souls with an inkling to migrate back to your old stomping grounds, I hope you don’t.
For starters, it should be noted this group of vagabonds is much smaller then we think. When compared to older generations (when they were at the same age range), millennials are moving at much lower rates and are already living at home at percentages not seen since the Great Depression.
But it’s not just millennials less inclined to explore. In 2017, only 39.4 million Americans changed area residences across states lines, a household mobility rate of 10.9%. To put this into perspective, this is the lowest transient rate since the Census Bureau started tracking the rate more than 50 years ago.
The truth is we’re not as nomadic as we think we are.
For those who leave their childhood turf, the majority don’t travel far or rarely weave themselves in new experiences. As economist Tyler Cowen points out in his book The Complacent Class, those who have moved out of their original hood in the past thirty years fall into three categories:
The first group is comprised of individuals who move out only for higher education programs. The second consists of individuals who move to one area, stay there for a roughly a decade, and move back.
And the last cohort is a group of individuals who relocate to a nearby area but remain deeply tethered to their childhood roots. This means still being anchored in one’s original community: , visiting regularly on weekends, committing time and resources to events back home, and trekking back to their original domicile when encountering any significant stress. (Cowen also found that most individuals stayed in the same region of the America in which they were born.)
Why does this matter?
I’ve spent the past two years traveling across the country, alternating between stops in rural and urban areas. I’ve come to understand that the issues plaguing rural American are much harder to fix than with a simple injection of human capital. While large metros grapple with how best to allocate resources to tackle big problems, small towns struggle with procuring resources to combat the major issues afflicting their region. Moreover, dozens of towns have the added challenge of getting their populace to be realistic about the magnitude of their local problems.
For example, there are countless rural communities not buying the urgent need to re-train and modernize skill sets for a more complex economy. You don’t need to tell anyone in New York, Seattle, Austin, or San Francisco about the continual challenge of rising rent.
Having a mass migration of metro dwellers seeking familiarity and low barrier to entry social justice won’t help these towns. Nor do these areas need to be culturally bulldozed by a group by growth initiatives who couldn’t successfully integrate into a new area. Additionally, despite what we on the coasts think, rural America has an abundance of smart, civic-minded, and passionate people dedicated to improving their communities (as well as more civil).
Smaller cities won’t benefit from those looking for comfort after periods of self-proclaimed resiliency, they need people who find comfort in being continuously resilient. A contingent looking for a way to do “adulting” with less stress is of no benefit.
Now, let me step inside the confession booth and admit I am guilty of these very things.
For nearly 10 years I resided in the Bay Area but constantly came home to avoid the major stresses and unknowns of a new city – I am still using the Southwest points I accumulated flying home my first two years of college. I gravitated towards every excuse to run home and, early on, associated with a group from high school. All this while making myself believe I was courageous for venturing off into unchartered terrain.
I am guilty of hometown savior complex. After every major point in my career: graduating from college, having my first job, getting a graduate degree, and making the mistake to move to Seattle, I’ve considered journeying back home to “nobly” disseminate my knowledge. I believed that a less competitive environment would be good for me and those who I wish to help. I even told my closest friends I’d like to be mayor of the city where I was raised.
But what I now realize is that I must learn to be a continual net contributor in a larger ecosystem before I can make a unique stamp on a smaller area, even if it’s a place I’m already I’m deeply familiar with. If you want to make a nuanced impact, endurance is only part of the equation. Resiliency, nostalgia, and being lost aren’t community empowerment skills (as much as creating network events at museums, opening shared workspaces, or pub trivia nights are). However, learning how to succeed and navigate foreign territory without a strong support system, is a valuable region-agnostic trait.
I am fully aware everyone has their own journey and motivations in life. But those of us lucky enough to cut their teeth in larger cities have not only a chance in witnessing, but also shaping culture, art, and innovation. For the most part, it’s incredibly excruciating, tiresome, and at times lonely even trying to make the tiniest dent in these concrete jungles. But we should fully seize, consider, and contextualize these amazing opportunities, relegated to a small minority, before we decided to retreat to that small-town life.