July 15, 2007

Best cities for young professionals

As if you couldn't guess, Forbes has ranked the Top 40 cities for young professionals. At the outset, let me register my frustration over the term "professional" -- the article surveyed elite college graduates, and I know from personal experience, anecdotes from those I knew in college, as well as just looking around, that a fair share of "professional" positions after graduation do not merit the term. The image that pops into my head when I hear "young professional" is not a young CEO or law firm associate, but rather the female protagonist from The Devil Wears Prada. (I have not seen the movie nor read the book, but I do know what her job consists of.)

I know, I know, in time these people will own a private medical practice, receive tenure at their university, or what have you, and they deserve encouragement in the meantime. But immediately bestowing upon them all the positive connotations of the term "professional" when they are pretty clueless and powerless as far as career life is concerned, only serves to inflate their egos, already bloated from having attended elite colleges. Any ranking of desirable cities for young, aspiring people should then reflect this: which cities score highest on the "deluded sense of self-importance" factor? While there's plenty to be said in favor of emphasizing easily measured factors like cost-of-living, number of historical landmarks per square mile, and so on, the factors that try to get a hold of the more subjective aspects of city life should focus on how easy it will be to get along with your peers vs. wanting to throttle them after a one-minute chat.

A city is only as enjoyable as the people who live in it. Anyone who has traveled to or lived abroad in cities with great architecture and a cornucopia of nightclubs and bars -- but where the 20- and 30-somethings are more likely to be mature and humble, as opposed to eternal bratty adolescents -- knows how frustrating it is to return to the US, where the best cities ranked by non-human measures are far more likely than their Continental European counterparts to be peopled by boors, jerks, skanks, and bottom-feeders.

Curiously, one of the handful of factors that the Forbes ranking considered is, well you read it:

Of course, even the most driven young professionals need to let off steam. With that in mind, the final metric was measured which cities had the highest share of never-married people in their 20s and 30s. Never married is an important qualifier. For example, of the 40 largest cities, Salt Lake City has the third-highest population share of people ages 25 to 34, but its standing as No. 27 in the never-married category really puts a damper on the nightlife.

I would be in favor if the factor were "never-married people 25 or younger," but for this measurement to take into account people in their 20s and 30s gives you quite a different picture from simply "good nightlife" -- it's more of an indication of how immature, self-absorbed, and off-putting the people are. If you have never been married, well into your 30s, you either have no interest in long-term relationships (meaning longer than a few years), you have an interest but are too wrapped up in your career to follow through, or something about you makes you unmarriageable. I'll admit there are sympathetic exceptions, but let's get real. For instance, droves of IT geeks who flock to a high-tech Mecca will surely ramp up its coolness factor by inflating the "never-married" statistic.

At some point in your life, you have to grow up -- or else face the consequences that the Boomers do (and perhaps half of Generation X -- they're more heterogeneous in this respect).* Fundamentally, growing up is about more than just having a job or even doing it well -- all but the unemployed will have a job, and students at elite colleges excel at what they do, so something else is needed to tell "the boys from the men." That prevents any criteria which are almost exclusively a function of earning an income: having your own apartment or house, shopping for groceries, paying taxes, etc.

Before the revolution of the youth in the late '60s and early '70s, these milestones probably correlated strongly with the true markers of maturity, which have more to do with one's character and behavior. Now, however, they have become uncoupled, and not a few 30-somethings resemble Tom Hanks' character in Big in their behavior, attire, and the appearance of their house / apartment. Because of the stronger, more deeply rooted social traditions of Continental Europe, the 1968 youthquake did not fundamentally alter society the way it did here: it was like a spring that someone stretched out but that quickly snapped back to a resting state. Our spring is more elastic and has yet to return to where it feels comfortable.

That presents some trouble for recent college graduates who are enthusiastic about moving to one of the top 10 cities in the Forbes ranking: it may be fun for a few years, but if there aren't larger social pressures that will push you toward adulthood, it's easy to get stuck in your early 20's. Now, if you could freeze everything else inside and outside of you, that would be rather tempting -- but in reality, you're not getting any younger, and becoming a mummified teenager is not flattering for anyone.

* It's a cop-out to suggest that growing up per se stifles one's creativity and sense of wonder -- for one thing, most people are not particularly creative or curious at all. Those who are creative but seemingly immature, for example the mathematician Paul Erdos, are more aptly described as "child-like" than "adolescent." Adolescence, you'll recall, is the time in your life when you're too busy thinking about sex to get much accomplished creatively, and when you affect an air of sophistication, losing interest in children's fantasies. In a documentary on Erdos, N is a Number, those who know him well liken him to a child, he professes a fascination with children, and he confesses that he receives no pleasure from sexual thoughts.


  1. Because of the stronger, more deeply rooted social traditions of Continental Europe, the 1968 youthquake did not fundamentally alter society the way it did here: it was like a spring that someone stretched out but that quickly snapped back to a resting state.

    Europe is farther to the left on most social indicators than the US (i.e. percentage of whites having births out of wedlock, percentage of never marrieds, etc.)

  2. I'm going to refer to different statistics at NationMaster by using quote marks.

    To clarify, I'm only talking about people who are, or once were, young professionals (yuppies). Most of our higher "marriage rate," earlier "age at 1st marriage," etc., is probably because of the far greater prevalence of religion (see Utah). Lots of Europeans are in the secular equivalent of a marriage -- "couples with children."

    But organized religion (i.e., the kind that would urge you to marry & raise a family ASAP) plays almost no role in the lives of yuppies.

    And the US does rank higher on "lone parent families," but the variance isn't great in this outcome.

    Now, go to StateMaster's website (linked at NationMaster). You'll see my hunch confirmed. There is an obvious negative correlation between "Percent of households that are married-couple families" or the same category "with own children" and yuppiness, irreligiosity, etc. "Percent of men [or women] never married" is also strongly correlated with yuppiness.

    So, most of what you're describing is a non-urban, middle or lower class, Red State phenomenon.

  3. OK, enough stats. When I say maturity, it's not just getting married (though that's a good indicator). It's more character and behavior. Like, showing deference to even a basic level of manners or etiquette, dressing like an adult, maintaining an adult's apartment / house, having adult tastes in culture (even if some still have a soft spot for their teenage tastes too), exercising some basic level of modesty and restraint, and so on.

    It's hard not to notice that Western Europe scores higher than we do on these measures -- a possible exception being England, which is also going down the tubes (that's pretty recent).

  4. Knowing the gender balance of the never-married young adult population is quite important. Some cities have a significant surplus of either males or females. That's obviously going to have an effect on one's ability to find a partner.

  5. How much time have you spent in Europe, and where?

    It's also striking that you can mention the obvious proximate cause of rising marriage age in this very post without noticing the connection. 20-somethings who are working "Devil Wears Prada" jobs are in no financial position to get married.

    Besides, the current average marriage age is barely higher than it was before WWII. My grandparents got married in their 30s. No one thought it was weird. The couple decades when everyone got married at 24 was weird.

  6. I've spent a week each in Paris and Rome, and I lived in Barcelona for a total of one year (3 months, then another 9 months), where I lived and worked.

    Again, I'm not talking about just getting married and raising kids -- if you think I don't notice that it's expensive to raise kids now, especially in cities, then you think I'm an idiot. Which I'm not. The same is true in Europe.

    You don't need to be rich enough to raise a family in Manhattan just to evidence mature character and behavior, which is the primary focus of the post. Most of the yuppies past a certain age are too self-absorbed to even *want* to get married, settle down, and have a family.


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