NYT Teardown: The Go-Nowhere Generation

This NYT Teardown is part of a new series in which I tear apart NYT articles that should never have been published. An occasional feature.

The article for this installment of NYT Teardown is The Go-Nowhere Generation written by Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz. The basic thesis of the article is that Americans used to move all the time across the country to seek opportunity - if one state wasn’t great, they would get into their cars and move across the country to begin their life anew. Think Mary Tyler Moore moving to Minneapolis. Today, however, students and young people are staying home in droves, by and large avoiding improving their economic lot.

Let’s look at the evidence that backs up such a sweeping claim:

  1. Americans are less likely to move according to Census data (how less likely is not clear. 1%? 25%? Such a magnitude would have been helpful)
  2. More students are living at home after graduation
  3. My favorite: A kid from Columbus who avoided a teaching career to work at a factory so that this person could stay in Columbus (and from a second-hand source too!)
  4. Fewer proportion of young people getting drivers licenses
  5. Too much Facebook usage (because, as we all know, that is the cause of everything)
  6. Risk aversion due to cultural changes like a new Disney show called “So Random!” (a title that describes the evidence in this piece quite effectively)
  7. Changing song lyrics from Bruce Springsteen

Convinced?

Perhaps I am crazy, but to say that the entirety of people under the age of 30 are going nowhere because of this level of evidence is ridiculous. It certainly doesn’t meet the standards of the NYTimes. While I question the thesis as a whole, I want to break apart the argument itself.

A more thoughtful argument would have looked at the relationship between college tuition costs, student loans, and risk aversion. Students today are graduating with loan debt not seen by our forebears. That is going to change the incentives to just get on a Greyhound bus and set out for a new land. The hippies of the 1960s could get into their peace buses, and provided they made enough money for food and lodging, get by without significant fear. Today, students have monthly minimum payments - there is significantly less room for error.

The Facebook argument is debatable, because the internet encourages people to spread farther away since their friends can always be found online. Increased internet usage delays attainment of driving skills is perhaps not so surprising when one doesn’t have to go to the movie theater to watch entertainment. That doesn’t prove that people lack labor mobility, it just shows that there isn’t a huge incentive to spend the thousands of dollars required to own a vehicle due to rising costs (like insurance, which was conveniently not mentioned in the article).

I want to specifically address the argument’s view on car ownership. Due to increased financing to public transportation along with the continued shift of 20-somethings to urban areas, it would appear that fewer young workers even need a car to begin with. Many new employees eschew cars for working and living in cities where mass transit is plentiful. San Francisco actively encourages residents to avoid cars by increasing taxes, eliminating parking and otherwise making it an inconvenient mode of transit. That isn’t economic failure, but quite possibly, economic success. Why our national ID card is the drivers license remains one of the stranger historical oddities of the United States (really, no other country places such emphasis on this sort of license).

When we judge this argument critically, we notice that there is really nothing but a shell of nostalgia about a different era left in the article. No, we don’t have route 66 or a new highway system. We do, however, have the information superhighway, and before we start to attack an entire population for not moving, let’s consider the social and economic context upon which these decisions are made. That’s not just good article writing, That’s So Raven (since Disney show titles are apparently proxies for actual arguments now).