Millennials and America's Megacities
Updated: Jan 29
Peter Mosher is a Master’s in International Public Affairs Student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He formerly served as a Board Member of Table to Table, a local nonprofit in Iowa City, IA; Co-Chair of the Thousand Currents Young Professionals Group in Oakland, CA; and a Peace Corps Agribusiness Advisor in Cameroon. He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Economics from Grinnell College.
The summer before I started seventh grade in 2005, my step-grandfather John Robert, a nuclear technician and avid reader, gave my brothers and I copies of The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman and promised us each $100 if we read it. I naturally finished the book, which described a future in which business could be conducted from anywhere using emerging technologies like video conferencing and high-speed broadband. Technology, the book predicted, would be a great equalizer in the job market. A few years later, John Robert passed away. The World is Flat is probably the most profound lesson he passed on to me.
Nine years later as a college junior in 2013, I had a dream. I needed to decide what my next step after graduation would be. As someone who attended a social-justice oriented liberal arts college, and like many other millennials, I hoped for a career path that created social impact and fulfilled a sense of purpose. After some soul-searching, I realized I wanted to work in international development.
My journey first took me to the Peace Corps in Cameroon for two years. Next, a failed relationship took me to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I essentially job hunted for two years in pursuit of my dream.
During my time in the Bay, I strove to find an entry-level job at one of the few a few fantastic international development organizations located there. I did everything I could, applying to countless jobs, networking, volunteering, and working a brief stint as a contractor, where my employer was not obligated to give me benefits.
In the Bay, I was subject to a variety of economic pressures. First, to work in international development, like many other industries, most entry-level jobs are concentrated in big cities where major employers are located. Even in a major hub like the Bay Area, connections advised me that it would be easier to find jobs in New York or DC. When I later visited New York, connections at a major Foundation there advised me that, in fact, DC was the real place to find a job. To pursue my dream, I was driven to megacities rife with overqualified, purpose-driven millennials like myself. Eventually, it became clear in the Bay that even a degree from a top college, two years of direct service work and volunteer experience would be insufficient to get me the jobs I was looking for.
While purpose-driven millennials are pushed to the megacities, the cost of living there puts major pressure on us. Housing prices in major American cities have risen so high that a large proportion of residents now want to leave them. The rise of housing prices in the US has become so severe that The Economist recently asserted that it is the main driver of wealth inequality in the nation, going so far as to say that the housing crisis is “at the root of many of the rich world’s social and economic problems.”
The dueling trends of job concentration in large cities and skyrocketing cost of living seems to contrast Friedman’s prediction of technology as a workforce equalizer. Instead, wealth inequality in the US continues to increase. As I progress towards graduating from my Master’s program in 2021, I worry about being forced to make a decision between continuing to pursue my dream, or living somewhere where I can save my money and own a home.
However there is hope. Madison, where I live, is a great small city with a reasonable cost of living, close to family with lots of amenities. Here, I’ve met a small contingent of international development professionals, such as the Executive Director of a small family foundation and a freelance fair trade coffee professional who have managed to carve out careers working remotely while owning homes and sending their children to good schools. These folks have taken advantage of Friedman’s workforce technology, and found organizations who value and support them as they balance professional and personal goals. Maybe this approach will be the way forward for me if I can find the right opportunity.
It remains to be seen whether employers will be forced to adapt to millennials’ exodus from major cities. Perhaps more employers could recognize the advantages of employees working remotely, or even relocate offices to more affordable locations. Alternatively, the government could do more to combat wealth inequality and the housing crisis in America's megacities.
Meanwhile mine is just the story of one millennial, typical in many ways. I am educated, purpose-driven, and affected by the generational wealth deficit. While for now I am not giving up on my dream, I will need to carefully weigh my personal and professional goals when deciding where I end up taking my career, as I suspect the case may be for many in my generation. However, for me, a return to the big city will be a hard sell.