State Economies Where It’s Possible to Grow Up


Reading an article about the phrase, “OK Boomer,” among Millennials and the even-younger generation, it occurred to me what a pleasure it is to be a GenXer, able to lean back smirking at both sides of that generational divide — which is a very GenX thing to want to do.

I mean, how perfect is it that the phrase, “OK Boomer,” apparently appeared in response to a member of that generation claiming that “millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome; they don’t ever want to grow up”?  Of course, every generation will cover the spectrum from Peter Pan to Mr. Wilson, but it takes a bit of self-unawareness for somebody from the Botox generation to characterize younger folks as never wanting to grow up.

So, as I sat before my computer screen trying to remember where my flannel shirts ended up, I wondered if these generational similarities and differences might have political and economic consequences.  You might think, for example, that similarly Peter-Panish generations would gravitate to the same states, and those states’ policies might provide some indication of how well that works.

Unfortunately, if that hypothesis has any validity, it isn’t readily visible in a comparison of states that Governing magazine published in 2014.  What Governing’s interactive maps suggest instead is that states’ alignment with generations probably has more to do with where people are in their lives than when they were born.

According to the methodology, Millennials at the time of the study were ages 11 through 30, so large numbers of them were still living with their parents.  That said, Millennials tended to congregate where the economy was conspicuously strong then: Utah, North Dakota, and Texas, notably.

GenXers were 31 to 46, so they drifted a bit more toward economic powerhouses like New York/New Jersey, California, and the area surrounding Washington, D.C.  At the same time, GenXers appeared to be striking out for places with a different aesthetic, like Georgia, Nevada, Colorado, and Washington state.  That last is an interesting hint, inasmuch as Seattle was the mythical land of grunge music and Sleepless in Seattle when we were in our formative years.

Meanwhile, Boomers dominated in “old guard” states, many of which had been hit hard by the recession.  They are heavily represented in the Northeast, from Maine to Wisconsin.  New England provides a helpful observation.  The top 3 most-Boomer states and five of the top 10 were in New England.  What’s notable is that New England’s economic backbone, Massachusetts, was not in that group, raising the possibility that Boomers were most heavily represented in the Northeast because they happened to be the most-entrenched, financially secure generation during and after the recession.  So, this could be a story of other generations’ flight away from, rather than Boomers’ gravitation toward, those states.

Lastly, the Silent/Greatest Generation leaned toward retirement states, like Florida, Arizona, and Hawaii.  Curiously, other states rank highly, here, that one might not expect, like Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, and Montana.  Perhaps such states offer a different aesthetic for retirement, or maybe they have a higher proportion of the “I ain’t leavin'” population.

A 2017 follow-up study by Governing pretty much reinforces the life-cycle theory.  Rather than percentage of population, it shades states by the degree of change in each generation.  Both of the younger generations moved toward healthy economies, with North Dakota being the most notable beacon, while the two older generations moved toward warmth and retirement in Florida and Arizona.

To some extent, all generations made the same statement over the six years in review.  All of America has been moving toward states with healthier economies, which has been bad news for our home state of Rhode Island.  The Ocean State is in the bottom half of states for population change for every single generation.  In fact, the only generation that didn’t show a decrease was Millennials, who increased their local numbers by 1% (30th in the country).

If we’re dealing in generational clichés, even a smirking GenXer might suggest that the Peter Pan accusation against Millennials is unfair.  According to cliché, Boomers were willing to work, and their parents had taught them that hardship can be part of life, but amidst it all, they wanted to be able to playact as children, resisting responsibility when not at work.  Becoming an adult was inevitable, to them, but they rebelled against it.  Thus their explosion of divorce.

The Millennial cliché is something different.  One gets the sense that they genuinely want to be adults and to be trusted with responsibility, but our culture hasn’t given them a clear understanding of what that means, and the Great Recession disrupted their ability to experiment during a key part of their lives.  A Millennial (again, going with the caricature) might even stay with the person with whom he or she has had a child but won’t bother to get married.  They’ll take jobs, even menial ones, but they’ll want the workplace to reflect the ideology and emotional support they received on the college campus.

And so we come to GenZ, whose viral response to some old guy accusing them and their older siblings of not wanting to grow up is to sketch a dismissive, eye-rolling phrase on a piece of notebook paper.  The elder’s method of conveying a worthwhile lesson became an opportunity for his intended audience to miss the point, even though it’s a point they might actually want to hear.

A GenXer might suggest that both sides of this generational gap are failing to see something that has been emphasized in our generation since it was first defined.  We were the latchkey kids, and the suffering children of easy divorce.  Grunge icon Kurt Cobain sang in “Serve the Servants“: “I tried hard to have a father/But instead, I had a dad.”

From this vantage point, we learned that life’s important lessons don’t descend upon a generation like dew.  They must be taught or they must be learned through hardship, perhaps over decades and generations.  The less they are taught, the more hardship young adults will need as a teacher.  Luckily for GenX, the reruns showing on the handful of stations we had on our baby-sitting TVs still carried the same lessons that our parents had learned when they were kids.

The Boomers relieved themselves of responsibility with the assumption that the kids would turn out OK, anyway, thanks to some natural law of the cultural universe.  Millennials agree that they can figure everything out for themselves and don’t need cultural instruction (thus being relieved of Kurt’s famous angst), but only because the culture is failing even to convey to them that there are important lessons for navigating life’s incalculable complexity.  Instead, the university teaches them that everything is obvious.

States contemplating how to attract Millennials therefore have some decisions to make.  They can do what Rhode Island’s disastrous former governor Lincoln Chafee did and attempt to cater to younger generations with economic fantasies, such as that bromides like “tolerance” can amount to an economic development plan.

Or states can go back to the old lessons and try to be the sorts of places that young adults will seek not because they’re cool and modern, but because they provide opportunities for young adults.  In other words, be the sort of place that people will go when they want to turn their labor and drive into income.

This quarter, New Hampshire returned to first in the country on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI).  (Although, it’s been top 3 the entire time we’ve been doing the index.)  One mightn’t be surprised to learn, therefore, that New Hampshire debuted on SmartAsset’s list of top 10 states to which Millennials are moving, this year.