October 20, 2014

The geography of striver boomtowns, AKA future ghost towns

An NYT article reviews a report on how recent college grads are multiplying like cancer cells, I mean fueling the engine of growth in cities across America, particularly in the most central areas of the city. They are shying away from Establishment cities and gentrifying second and third-tier cities where the rents are cheaper -- until the word gets out and the next twenty waves of transplants bid up the rents to Establishment levels.

The article and report refer to 25-34 year-olds with a B.A. as talented, creative, etc., without any proof required other than the fact that their brains are young, that their credential being bought and paid for (rather than earned) allowed them to goof off for four years, and that they spent that time cultivating unique quirky tastes shared by 90% of their age-mates (craft breweries bla bla bla).

These cases illustrate some of the themes I've started to develop here about the geographic and generational differences in status-striving. The Gen X and Millennial subjects they're tracking are moving away from Establishment cities because the Silent and Boomer incumbents refuse to vacate the prime real estate and above-poverty-level jobs.

More broadly (see this post), materialist and career competition have become too saturated by Silents and Boomers, leaving X-ers and Millennials to pursue lifestyle competition instead. That will not only affect which cities they flock to, but the character of their lives once they arrive -- they will turn the place into one great big playground for lifestyle status contests, lots of drinking, and the occasional random drunken hook-up. Or, College: The Sequel (total run-time to be determined).

And they aren't picking just any old sub-Establishment cities but ones that are already growing at a fair clip, and are already and have historically been quite large in population. When they look for a city in the Northeast to take the place of New York or Boston, do they settle on Albany? No, it has to be the second-largest city in New York -- Buffalo. Feeling squeezed out of Chicago and Dallas in the Midwest and Philadelphia and DC in the east? Well, you could shoot for Wheeling, WV or Grand Rapids, MI -- but why not aim as high as you can (within your budget), and resurrect the Gilded Age empires of Pittsburgh and Cleveland?

Fortunately, nobody involved at the grassroots or the academic and journalistic levels has any knowledge of history, so what's to temper the enthusiasm for pushing Buffalo and Cleveland as up-and-coming boomtowns (at least among the Creative Class)? It's not as though they've already been through the over-hype and hollowing-out cycle before. But if you want more sustainable long-term growth, you'd have to settle for cities that are smaller, historically less important, and culturally less thrill-seeking. Off-the-radar cities.

On the whole, though, the striver boomtowns are not in the Rust Belt but in the Sun Belt, i.e. where mainstream America has already been heading for decades. There are now enough earlier transplants who can actually run a business and create jobs, that the Creative Class can play catch-up and jump on the Sun Belt bandwagon without starving and "living outside". Will the Sun Belt soon turn into the next Rust Belt? Impossible -- growth only increases, worst-case at a slowing rate, but there will never be a mass desertion of entire swaths of the country that had been over-hyped, over-built, and over-indulged.*

It comes as no surprise, then, that the cities with the greatest percentage growth in 25-34 college grads fail the test of egalitarianism outlined in this post -- not having a pro sports team. Only Austin passes (I didn't claim the test was perfect). That proves that they are not simply seeking refuge from the rising competitiveness and widening inequality that blight the Establishment cities. Otherwise they'd be heading to some place where it would never occur to the locals to allow their public coffers to be parasitized by a big-league team that could PUT THEM ON THE MAP.

Among the ranks of Millennial boomtowners, is there any awareness of how illusory all this rapid growth is? Let's ask one of them living in Denver:

“With lots of cultural things to do and getting away to the mountains, you can have the work-play balance more than any place I’ve ever lived,” said Colleen Douglass, 27, a video producer at Craftsy, a start-up with online classes for crafts. “There’s this really thriving start-up scene here, and the sense we can be in a place we love and work at a cool new company but not live in Silicon Valley.”

How can start-ups be thriving? You don't thrive until you're mature. All those dot-com start-ups sure seemed to be thriving in the late '90s -- what happened to them after that, I'll have to order a history book on inter-library loan, since I'm too retarded to remember.

Online classes for crafts, or where higher ed meets e-tailing. Two great bubbles that burst great together!

BTW, her Linkedin profile shows that she went to the University of Dayton, which I don't recall being very close to Denver. All the talk about youngsters choosing the cities and bustling city cores over the dull suburbs papers over the reality that these kids aren't shopping around at the urban vs. suburban level, but at the entire metro area level -- which city will maximize my number of likes and followers? She didn't choose downtown Dayton over an attractive suburb of Dayton like Beavercreek -- she wanted to ditch dear, dirty Dayton altogether.

Group identities that are constructed consciously by first-generation adherents who merely affiliate with a city will be weak, shallow, and fleeting compared to those that are inherited unwillingly by multi-generational descendents who are rooted there. The western half of the country has long been more plagued by vice and social decay than the eastern half, and its history of rootlessness provides the central explanation.

Another long established fact about urban growth and migration is that cities do not grow except by wave after wave of even greater fools pouring into them. City folk are so caught up in their status contests (whether based on career or lifestyle), that they forgot to get married and have kids. By the time their career is established, or their reputation on Instagram suitably impressive, it's too late to start. Cities have been fertility sink-holes ever since they began thousands of years ago, and migration from the countryside was all that fed their growth.

What will happen to these 30 year-olds when the contests over who's sampled the most esoteric food truck fare begin to get old? They won't have any family or community life to fall back on; everything up till then has been based on lifestyle status competition. They will face the choice between staying stuck on the status treadmill forever, or drop out in isolation, where they'll indulge their vices until they bodies and brains loosen into mush. Sadly, that will begin by the time they're 40, when the final relief of death is still very far away.

Gosh, you guys, what the heck. I hate to be such a downer, but all this mindless enthusiasm for urban cancer is not only getting tiresome, but by now disturbing.

* During a brief refractory period, the cheerleading reporter lets some sobering facts slip by:

Atlanta, one of the biggest net gainers of young graduates in the 1990s, has taken a sharp turn. Its young, educated population has increased just 2.8 percent since 2000, significantly less than its overall population. It is suffering the consequences of overenthusiasm for new houses and new jobs before the crash, economists say.

Good thing that Ben Bernanke ordered an anti-hype fence to be built around Atlanta, lest the overenthusiasm ruin other Sun Belt boomtowns.


  1. I thought the main reason cities were sinks was disease.

  2. For taking away fertility, cities are the gift that keeps on giving.

  3. "For taking away fertility, cities are the gift that keeps on giving."

    Yeah, I believe gcochran called them "DNA Shredders". Ouch.

    Agnostic, I thought you lived in Denver, at the top of Millenial expansion? Or maybe it was just Colorado.

  4. Pardon, it was Dennis Mangan, and he called cities "IQ Shredders".

  5. I recommend getting on twitter. I don't use it myself, but this blog has some of the most original but unseen insights around. With the right hash tags and retweets, your ideas could really get out there.

  6. Why would he want to get on Twitter? It's a distracting, Millenial-focused app that has no practical purpose except for spouting your views.

    Agnostic is digging deeper into issues that many people either aren't aware of or know exist but can't articulate them. This requires a format that's not limited to 140 characters.

    Agnostic is also somewhat anachronistic (or retro as the hipsters call it), in that he prefers proven older technology over the new-fangled stuff. The analog vs. digital series on photo and film-making is fascinating and explained to me why I find older photos and films just plain more attractive.

    I doubt he uses Facebook (and if he does, only to communicate with family), probably owns a CD or record player and chooses to listen to that format for his music, enjoys driving a stick shift, physically doing errands and interacting with people versus ordering everything online, etc.

  7. "I doubt he uses Facebook (and if he does, only to communicate with family), probably owns a CD or record player and chooses to listen to that format for his music, enjoys driving a stick shift, physically doing errands and interacting with people versus ordering everything online, etc."

    Does he have kids though? He's in his early 30's but only ever mentions playing with his nephew.

  8. shots fired in the Canadian Parliament. along with the break-in to the White House, is this a pattern of incompetents being hired during times of Cocooning?

  9. I've thought about both Twitter and Instagram. Twitter more for off-the-cuff observations that wouldn't fill out an entire post, but still touch on the recurring themes around here. And Instagram for documenting the state of decay, nostalgic ruins, and so on.

    There is a lot to say and show that's below the size of a post, and that accumulated over the lifetime of the feed, would form into coherent bigger pictures.

    On the other hand, are those sites going to be around in five years, or will they be like Bulletin Board Systems and Myspace?

  10. twitter seems more like extra content for people who are already fans, rather than something that can attract new ones.

    twitter produces the kind of disposable products that are more a hallmark of cocooning. twitter has risen during the falling crime right after the early 2000s, so I think that if things do become more outgoing, it will fade away.

  11. 'twitter produces the kind of disposable products that are more a hallmark of cocooning.'

    I think times of high social inequality regardless of crime/outgoingness are linked to poor quality/service in everything besides art. Food, infrastructure, vehicles, electronics etc. A select few get to enjoy high end stuff while everyone else is stuck with junk.

    On the other hand, times of high crime/outgoingness (regardless of inequality) produce enduring, thoughtful art. Almost no art makes any kind of real impact when everyone is docile, aloof and reclusive. Though Agnostic has correctly noted that some movies from cocooning periods can derive entertainment from saying something about cocooning. But music does seem uniformly terrible when people recede from each other.

    The pop music and movies of the 40's/50's were awfully dorky but at least businesses gave a damn about quality products and service. Elites weren't as, well, elite and arrogant. Meanwhile, the 80's were a fantastic decade for pop culture but it's also when we began to really press the accelerator on the win at all costs hyper competitiveness that is so toxic to most peoples' well being.

  12. A bit of an addendum to my last point. I recently saw a chart about NFL player size. The number of 300 lbs plus players rose slightly in the late 70's then soared in the mid to late 80's. A willingness to eat and take drugs at a dangerously high level reflects a growing "I've got to stay competitive" mindset. The reason everyone ends up taking such risks is because of growing mutual ambitions.

    If people developed a stronger sense of 'let's keep things at a reasonable level, god given talent is enough for me to get through' then people wouldn't endanger themselves and others for the sake of staying competitive.

    Maybe we've come to the point of such excess that it won't be too long before it dawns on us that we need to tone things down again.

    Gentleman's agreements aren't very gentlemanly in highly competitive times.

  13. I definitely see it as a way to promote your blog and expose it to new people, not to post gay little quips all day. I believe roissy/heartiste has linked to you before. If he retweeted a few of your posts every month, the impact could be huge. A lot of people would look at your stuff on cocooning cycles or agricultural versus herding cultures and say, wow, I've never seen this ANYWHERE. I'd bet your subscribers would increase by an order of magnitude.

  14. "If people developed a stronger sense of 'let's keep things at a reasonable level, god given talent is enough for me to get through' then people wouldn't endanger themselves and others for the sake of staying competitive"

    That's a good point, it seems that times of inequality value obssesive hard work as a way to be competitive.

  15. Believing that "hard work" can or should trump everything is dangerous; it leads not only to incompetency, but also immorality. People believe that they deserve something because they put the hours in.

  16. 'People believe that they deserve something because they put the hours in.'

    Right, that kind of entitled attitude is common among Silents/Boomers, especially as they age. Dammit, I worked my ass off for decades, I'm gonna ride off into the twilight of my life and generation and give the finger to everybody else.

    After so many people have labored so much since about the late 60's, what do we have to show for that effort? A society corroded by inequality, mistrust, corruption and sexual perversion that seems like it gets closer to imploding by the day. Agnostic hit the nail on the head when he said that we're not in Ike Eisenhower's America anymore.

    Remember Malcolm Gladwell's X amount of hours thing? The idea was that simply putiing in a ton of hours into practicing/studying would make an ordinary person an expert. Besides that being obviously ridiculous, he totally overlooks how destructive it is to be consumed by 'improving' at any given thing. Nowadays, most people are too autistic to be aware of how competitiveness has left the Western world in tatters.

    That a nerdy charlatan like Gladwell could be a minor celebrity, albeit a short lived one, says a lot about how glib and obsequious we've become. We just latch on to self serving fashion without question. Where's Dirty Harry when we need him?.Hell, I'd settle for Snake Plissken at this point.

  17. "The idea was that simply putiing in a ton of hours into practicing/studying would make an ordinary person an expert"

    Yeah, good point. You see the change in the college system, with extracurricular activities and recommendation letters replacing standardized testing. Its so pervasive that you can come up lots of other examples.


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