At a New Orleans dinner party about a year ago, I met a young woman who was in town to visit her brother, who had moved here after graduate school in search of some meaningful way to apply his talents. She was bright and ambitious, an engaging conversationalist, and a recent graduate of a prestigious university. Like many in her peer group, it was for her a period of transition, one in which this early 20-something, un-tethered for the first time to the geographic choices made by her parents or the locale of the university she attended, was making her first serious decision about where to live. Most of her friends, she told me, were moving to New York, San Francisco or New Orleans.
The first two cities on her list were hardly surprising. The young, creative and adventurous have long flocked to these places, squeezing, sometimes three at a time, into spaces no larger than their parents’ living rooms and taking on two or more jobs to cover monthly rents that in a middle American suburb might get them a multi-bedroom house. It was New Orleans’ inclusion in this group that stood out to me. Like New York and San Francisco, New Orleans stands apart in this nation of chain restaurants and strip malls. But unlike the first two names on the list, places where the high cost of living are offset by the promise of good-paying jobs and career advancement, our beloved, yet beleaguered city, plagued by decades of neglect and corruption, environmental and economic disaster has not, at least in recent history, fit the traditional models of success.
Precisely what my dinner acquaintance was speaking to was the importance of place. It may be true that the Internet, cheap energy and various other technological and political forces have rendered geography increasingly irrelevant where jobs and commerce are concerned. But conversely, it seems that the very pressures that have made this dislocation happen have served in some ways to make place all the more relevant.
New Orleans is a city long festering with crime, poverty, a shamefully dysfunctional school system and a decaying economy. But what it does have in droves is personality. Ours is a city whose virtues can be difficult to describe to the outsider, but that are nonetheless powerfully palpable and seductive. It is the reason anyone who has spent any significant time here can rattle off a dozen ‘New Orleans moments’ but, having spent a similar amount of time in cities such as my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana or Des Moines, Iowa, for that matter, might be hard-pressed to identify local analogues. It is the reason that even amid the error-prone response to Hurricane Katrina and the vocal doubts raised in the storm’s wake about the sagacity of rebuilding our precariously-positioned, (arguably) economically-inessential city, the decimation of New Orleans resonated with wide swaths of Americans in a way that the destruction of neighboring Gulf Coast locales did not.
Could the special yet hard to describe place of New Orleans in the American psyche explain the influx of young, educated people to the city in the past several years? Perhaps so. I am reminded by this trend of Portland, Oregon, a Mecca for 20-somethings from aspiring musicians to young professionals pursuing traditional career paths (whatever that means anymore), and not because the city is overflowing with lucrative job opportunities. According to a recent NPR story, the unemployment rate in Portland hovers slightly above the national average and wages in the city tend to be lower than nearby Seattle and San Francisco. These newcomers instead cite time and again more elusive qualities related to the vibe of the place, often summarized under the banner quality of life.
If you can do a job anywhere, you can do it anywhere. And if one is able to do a job anywhere, the decision of where to live becomes more rooted in factors such as the capacity of a place to offer meaningful experience, stokie creativity, or, in the case of the young and single, proximity to other young people. My friend Jeremiah is a prime example of this phenomenon, having moved over the past several years through a circuit of cities whose main commonality is a high coolness quotient. After finishing college in Austin, he took a job doing computer programming for a Texas company. Thanks to the web-based nature of his position, he held on to his job when he moved to Seattle, Washington. When he grew disenchanted with the dreary winters and a seemingly high ratio of men to women in the Pacific Northwest he headed to sunny Los Angeles. These days, he’s living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I wanted to be in a place where things happen,” he told me. New Orleans, too, appears to be benefitting from this type of locational flexibility. The swell in recent years of digital media companies setting up shop in the city is a favorite innovation economy success story of local officials. One such firm, the search engine optimization outlet Search Influence, was founded in 2006 by New Yorker Will Scott. He cites New Orleans’ creative environment, low cost of living, and emerging tech opportunities among his reasons for locating here. “Our work is online,” he recently told the The Times-Picayune, “We could have built this business anywhere.”
Broader trends taking shape across the country would seem to reinforce the continued – and possibly increasing – importance of place, especially among the young, educated, mobile set. Whereas their grandparents may have settled into a job early on and stuck with it for the remainder of their working years, young workers of today more frequently take their time to settle on a career path, sometimes exploring multiple spheres of work before deciding on a course. Many reject categorization altogether. They are simultaneously delaying society’s traditional trappings of adulthood, particularly marriage and parenthood, leaving them with more flexibility when it comes to picking up and moving when the mood or opportunity strikes and rendering less significant considerations such as earning a stable income to support a family and the quality of area schools. These workers have also grown more accustomed to uncertainty than their parents, having been confronted with the worst economic climate in decades and been steeped in the value of improvisation.
A few years ago, Time Magazine, with the help of consulting firm Deloitte, chronicled the working habits and preferences of the 76-million strong cohort of 20-somethings known as Generation Y. The article concluded that, more so than generations before them, these young workers prioritized work-life balance, the ability to work remotely and a feeling of working toward some greater purpose. “Taking time off to travel used to be a resume red flag; today it’s a learning experience,” the article declared. “And entrepreneurship now functions as a safety net for this generation. They grew up on the Internet, and they know how to launch a viable online business.” Written before the dramatic downturn in the economy was fully apparent, it would stand to reason that the turmoil since that time would serve to underscore the appeal of uncovering opportunity where conventional opportunity may be in short supply. Fortunately for cities like New Orleans, that kind of entrepreneurial zeal doesn’t require a vast network of Fortune 500 companies.