The real story behind millennials and the new localism.
This essay was published in a series commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Opportunity Urbanism entitled, “Localism in America: Why We Should Tackle our Biggest Challenges at the Local Level.” You can read the whole thing here.
Localism is more than a political movement. For many, particularly millennials, it also expresses deep-seated cultural values that appeal to their aspirations and hungers. But, insofar as politics reflects deeper forces twitching in the social fabric—this last election no less emblematic—more and more young people are choosing to live at a scale they can see and touch, grounded in a place and committed to its people.
You can find scenes of this budding localism everywhere. I type this while sitting in an outdoor café in Eastern Market, Washington, DC, where Amish farmers are selling mums and explaining the purity of their agricultural process, aging hippies strum Neil Young, and Korean immigrants from nearby Fairfax, Virginia, set up their grocery stalls. The weather is beautiful, and the neighborhood quaint, its humane accessibility a striking departure from the tempest of political intractability just seven blocks away.
Zoom out from this portrait, and the US Department of Agriculture says you will find 8,600 tableaus just like it in cities and towns across the country. Farmers markets have exploded in the past decade, attracting urbanists and agrarians, singletons, and young families. Evoking nostalgia, authenticity, the relationality of traditional trade, and some throwback to a village vibe, these markets pay homage to a localist vision that has yet to take root in the sweat and sacrifice of the tonier consumers browsing their wares.
But what you sense in these farmers markets is an expression of a generation that, contrary to caricature, longs for a sense of empowered contribution, meaningful community, and yes, sacrifice, too. The upper tier of millennials—those between ages 26 and 34—graduated to the tune of “Save the World!” only to find themselves starved for a sense of tangible impact in the spheres they can more immediately see and touch.
We tweet our way to a personal brand or cultural position, only to watch our thoughts dissolve, escaping into the ether of a billion other quips. We spend our 20s trying to get closer to a vocation we can throw ourselves into for the long haul, only to feel like the whole process is an endless game of hopscotch. Marriage has become something “to expect in the mail at about age 35,” as one college student put it, and the reliable commitments we long for from others—in friendship especially—seem perplexingly elusive, even as we are scared to make commitments of our own.
How Our National Politics May Accelerate Localism
If there was a doubt that national politics could change anything for the better, the election of Donald Trump ripped off what remained of a mask of civic unity. Underneath was a hornet’s nest of resentments and disenchantment with the American Project, fierce suspicions of the “other,” and a whole lot of structural sclerosis. Suddenly, the generation that had carried the first black president into office, on wings of cherubim and messianic hopes, found themselves experiencing a country more unhappy than when he began. “Woke” may be a word anointed by progressives to describe being awakened to structural racism, but in a very real sense, millennials post–November 9 have also been “woke” to the impotence of national politics.
Yet if millennials have failed to change the national story, they are chipping away at a similar arc in hundreds of towns and cities, both large and small. The manifestations of local investment are endless: Folklore Films in Houston tells better stories about Houston to Houston. The American Underground in Durham incubates businesses and creatives in one sprawling space for cross-pollination and a more tangible sense of community at work. The Anselm Society is trying to reinvigorate Colorado Spring’s artistic imagination and intellect through public forums that attract storytellers, poets, musicians, and public thinkers. Private and civic investors in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis are connecting universities, companies, entrepreneurs, and business incubators, turning their cities into global centers of cutting-edge technology. Warehouses across the country are being repurposed, vast rectangles of storage now serving as dynamic and diverse makers’ commons. All of this local investment is organic, and it is encouraging a new configuration of American culture to the grassroots level.
Why Millennials Are Going Local
In many ways millennials were the perfect generation to take up the localism baton. We were the generation that grew up during 9/11 and the Iraq War, with unpredictable forces of terrorism swirling amid a breathless industry of global altruism. A distrust of the abstract was born. We were the generation constantly told by our commencement speakers that we would change the world. A hunger for “impact” kindled that quickly grew disenchanted with large-scale revolution. We were the generation that felt betrayed by religious institutions, big government, big banks, and an establishment whose faces did not reflect the diversity in our own circles. And all this happened as we came of age alongside the internet, with the attenuating information deluge, relational disembodiment, and an increasingly distracted, programmed humanity.
Localism, of course, has a long history extending from Edmund Burke to Wendell Berry and Saul Alinsky to E. F. Schumacher. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful was published in 1973, but it might as well be a bumper sticker today.
Millennials have reacted against the impersonal machines of a corporate age, voting with their feet toward companies and organizations that offer a tangible sense of impact, “meaningfulness,” and an opening for their originality to express itself. While many may have surrendered to the fact that we now live in an economic, social, and artistic market that exalts and rewards only a few superstars, there has also been a growing awareness that one need not devalue the modest and the proximate to be a worthwhile contributor. Burke’s notion of loving our own little platoon is back, sometimes by choice, sometimes by last resort.
An even more venerable concept originated in Catholic social thought—subsidiarity, which encourages a decision to be made at the lowest, smallest, and least centralized capable authority. Localism is its secular descendant, supporting local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and local history, culture, and identity. It tends to be nostalgic in tone, preferring boutique and personal to the corporate globalization that succeeded only in making all things soulless and the same.
Since the middle of the George W. Bush administration, we have seen growing disillusionment with central planning and governance by “experts.” From Iraq to Obamacare, the entitlement crisis to the housing bubble, Americans have grown weary of rational planning from the top, disgusted, too, with the presumption that pedigreed elites know best.
It is not ideology that attracts millennials. Surveys reveal that they are increasingly turned off by large institutions but are much more friendly to local control, small business, and self-organized community groups. According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, 88 percent of millennials do not trust what the press at large says, preferring to go through their own networks for trusted news sources. Eighty-six percent express distrust in Wall Street, and 74 percent sometimes or never trust the government to do the right thing. Thirty-five percent of millennials say they are unaffiliated with any religious group, compared with 23 percent of Generation X. And despite being the most connected, privacy-eschewing generation in human history, according to Pew Research, only 19 percent of millennials say that most people can be trusted, compared with 40 percent of baby boomers. They trust their smartphones, and through them their “friends,” and through them a random and often unpredictable assortment of media and crowd-sourced opinion.
Millennials tend toward the progressive when it comes to their social values and aesthetic preferences, but they reject bureaucrats and “experts” as effective creators of solutions. Instead, as Morley Winograd and Michael Hais suggest, millennials are “pragmatic idealists” who believe deeply in causes that can be addressed with concrete, scalable, and often entrepreneurial action, measured with hard data.
The millennial founder of Colorado’s Anselm Society, Brian Brown, in a prescient 2011 essay in the New Atlantis, pointed to efforts in cities as diverse as Boston; Colorado Springs; Rochester, New York; and St. Petersburg, Florida—including the development of neighborhood councils and efforts to make communities more socially friendly and self-sufficient. “The move toward localism is driven by expediency more than ideology,” suggests Brown. “Cities, businesses, and other orga- nizations are instituting place-centered practices not because of identification with a movement or theory, but because they are finding that a more organic approach just plain works better. Doing things the ‘messy’ way often proves more effective in the long run.”
“Messy” may be as core to the millennial ethos as “authentic.” Where the boomers favored corporate, fast-food-like approaches to business and problem-solving, millennials have grown up in a world of constant complexity, contradictory truths, and one too many national debacles caused by overconfident idealism, both left and right. “Messy” strikes a more honest chord, and while not always the most efficient, millennials believe it promises greater efficacy in the long run. It refuses the luxury of abstraction; it wrestles with all the reality.
The Search for Community
According to the Pew Research Center, only 32 percent of millennials say America is the greatest country on earth, compared with 50 percent of boomers. Millennials are not just isolated from the country, but from each other as well. Loneliness has gone viral, with 86 percent of millennials reporting feeling lonely and depressed in 2011. While millennials value parenthood and marriage as much as older generations, only 21 percent are currently married, compared to 50 percent of their parents’ generation at the same life stage.
What we have is a mass of floaters, of young adults detached from meaningful institutions that grant identity and a healthy pathway to sort out one’s identity.
“One of the most popular words in the millennial generation is ‘community,’” says Brown in a promotional video for the Anselm Society. “And one of the top reasons for that is that most of us have never had it. It is very easy to not have community. It is very easy to not have the kinds of stories and songs and expe- riences that actually pull a community together, that can actually create a new normal. The phrase we’ve heard over and over [from millennials interested in what The Anselm Society is creating] is, ‘I thought I was the only one.’ ‘I thought I was alone.’”
Millennials have a friendship problem, despite amassing hundreds by the same title on Facebook. There is a craving for some semblance of a village again, where you might know and be known. White millennials in particular have a nostalgia they do not know how to name nor channel. When I have asked peers to name a particularly formative hero in their lives, most will mention a grandparent. The Greatest Generation inspires us more than boomers, though we prefer to pick and choose from mid-century social and moral norms.
Millennials are more suspicious of politics than any preceding generation, believing strongly that our problems are beyond political solutions. Insofar as politics has credibility, it tends to be local. A recent poll sponsored by Allstate and National Journal found that less than a third of millennials favor federal solutions over locally based ones, and more profoundly, they prefer community-based approaches, period. A 2014 Pew survey found that 50 percent of millennials considered themselves political independents, compared to 39 percent of Generation X and 37 percent of baby boomers.
“It’s more civil society than politics,” says Brown, reflecting on his experience in Colorado Springs. “I don’t know that many millennials who are involved in local politics beyond the voting level. [By contrast,] I know many millennials who are starting coffee shops, starting non-profits.”
This shift to localism often stems first from necessity. Cities such as DC, New York City, and San Francisco were cosmopolitan hotspots of opportunity for the young and hungry just six years ago, but they are now too expensive, with rent outpacing pay. Instead, according to research from the Urban Land Institute, millennials are moving to places such as Memphis, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Riverside-San Bernardino, and Virginia Beach, where there is visible space for reinvention and thinner membranes for newcomers to penetrate.
“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen among young people in D.C. lately,” says Karlyn Bowman, a longtime fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “is that instead of plotting out a path that includes graduate school and then a return to some position in government or at a think tank, people want to get a little experience from this perch and then go home. To take what they’ve learned here, and serve the communities that they know.”20
Some are going home where their roots are. J. D. Vance, who wrote the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, wrote an editorial for the New York Times in March 2017 that was widely circulated among millennials, particularly those in their later 20s and early 30s. For millennials such as Vance, the choice between achievement and serving one’s country is increasingly a stark one. He writes:
The more diffcult truth is that people naturally trust the people they know . . . more than strangers who work for faraway institutions. And when we’re surrounded by polarized, ideologically homogeneous crowds, whether online or off, it becomes easier to believe bizarre things about them. This problem runs in both directions: I’ve heard ugly words uttered about “flyover country” and some of its inhabitants from well-educated, generally well-meaning people. . . .
It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse. And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home, to Ohio.
He is not alone. More and more millennials who have “made it” through elite hoops are leaving the rat race for lives that feel a little more containable. Net domestic migration to the New York City metro area is down by 900,000 people since 2010. Economist and writer Jed Kolko says that population growth in big cities has been shrinking for five consecutive years. Where historically coveted landing pads such as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, say, “Come and nd yourself,” these inland millennial magnets o er something deeper: “Come and commit yourself.”
Britt Riner moved home to Sarasota, Florida, with her husband in 2015 after getting an M.B.A. from Stanford and living in Washington, DC. They had all the right energy, excitement, and a desire to dig in and get involved. “We really needed a break from the Organization Kid way of doing life,” says Riner. “Leaving [the East Coast] felt like we were heading o the grid. I didn’t feel the same pressure to run the rat race that everyone else was running. I was able to go a bit slower, and push myself to go farther. I naturally have ambition. . . . I don’t need to see other hamsters spinning their wheels, too.”
But the reality was that returning home “was harder before it was sweeter.”
“Some people are impressed with your background,” says Riner, “eager to have you regard their town as worthy of their life. But there are others who are threatened by it. I had a tough time breaking into the job market. People in Sarasota didn’t exactly understand what a product manager was. While folks were impressed with ‘Duke’ and ‘Stanford’ on my resume, it ended there. Never before had my greatest accomplishments been my vulnerabilities and barriers. My pride raged inside, ‘Don’t you all know how smart I am? What I’m capable of?’ I grappled with the fact that my husband had a place in my home town, but I didn’t. I was lost in a sea of familiarity.”
Her homecoming path was eased through a surprising vehicle: the Junior League. “Here in Sarasota, they may not know what a product manager is,” says Riner. “But they know what a Junior League president is.”
Because she held Junior League membership in three other cities, the Sarasota chapter welcomed her with open arms. They connected her with opportunities to serve the city, educated her on the key issues facing Sarasota, and coached her in motherhood as she had her rst child.
“They recommended an OB-GYN to me who I now work with at a crisis pregnancy center. It’s so cool that the man who helped bring my children into the world is helping women with unplanned pregnancies. I can assure you that in D.C. I’d have never experienced that kind of interconnectivity,” says Riner.
For a generation whose moral instincts revolve around notions of “impact,” the tangibility of localism, of seeing your fingerprints and the ripple effects, is appealing. And even though millennials helped create our hyper-connected age, they may be hitting a tipping point where weaning off virtual reality presents itself as the only way to find fulfillment, to regain some control over one’s own life. There is a growing craving for life to be lived off-line, for human contact to be enjoyed with real handshakes, real meals around real tables, and real care for neighbors, knowing that in a pinch that neighbor will watch out for you in turn.
Millennials and the Future of Localism
How large and widely accepted this trend is remains complicated and not entirely known. Several key factors suggest some underlying reasons to think the trend may accelerate.
For one thing, millennials generally move less than earlier generations did. Despite all the talk of this being a noncommittal group, millennials change jobs less frequently than people in other generations. A study of 25,000 millennials in 22 countries by Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson found that at least 40 percent expect to stay with their current employer for nine years or more. Forty-four percent said they would be happy to spend the rest of their career at their current organization.
Millennials prefer to curate experiences rather than accumulate material possessions. Insofar as they do consume, they like knowing the source of their purchases. The growth of websites like Etsy is largely due to millennials (who are 57 percent more likely than other groups to visit the e-commerce portal), drawn to handmade and vintage craft items and engaging in tailored, personal exchanges with the artisan.
So far much of what we see among the educated class might be called cultural localism. It is the belief that a number of human goods—personalism, a sense of belonging, tangible responsibility, and more—are partially or entirely inaccessible to human beings who live in overly commercialized, corporatized, and efficiency-prizing environments. Cultural localism is the easiest to identify, and it is also what is most attractive to millennials, at least those with agency to choose where they live and how they want to lead life there.
There are at least two other brands of localism— ethical and political. Ethical localism discourages offering one’s allegiance to ideas or institutions that transcend one’s particular locality, while political localism believes that the best decisions are made at the smallest degree of scale. While the latter tends to appeal to millennials in business and in civic action, so far there is not a lot of evidence that they feel enthused about politics in any form, period.
Technology, so responsible for various forms of alienation, can also be a localist tool. According to the Poynter Institute, nearly three-quarters of Americans say they follow local news closely most of the time, up from 57 percent in 2008. Coupon collectives such as Groupon and Living Social entice us to shop where we live. Foursquare and Neighborhood invite us to explore our immediate surroundings, as dating apps and Yelp match preferred goods to present coordinates.
Despite the ferocity of the present political moment and how it may point to localism as our best hope for repair, the future of localism is anything but clear. On the one hand it has the potential to become an animating and possibly even healing paradigm for a country cynical about national leadership and despairing of reconciliation brother to sister, neighbor to neighbor. On the other hand, localism could just as easily become yet one more force of polarization and estrangement, encouraging people to sink further into their silos and associate only with those just like them. What are the prospects for a nation that is healthy locally but sick nationally?
“I think localism is the religion for millennials today,” says Brown. “I think it’s fundamentally a religious impulse. It’s either tapping into a religion you already belong to, or it’s taking the place of a religion that you don’t have. Localism offers a way for people to orient their entire lives around a place. It’s liturgies and routines and relationships and so on.”
If what he suggests is true, there is a need to frame the boundaries and be clear on telos. Millennials tend to see just in front—it is a product of youth and the dazzling immediacy of the technology that shaped us and the checklists that raised us. But insofar as we can locate our starvation for community and tangible contribution as arrows pointing toward the need to rebuild not just places but a covenantal sense toward country, history, and creed, localism could become the spark for a revived communitarianism and a much healthier citizenry. This is the hope, and this is the need.
This essay originally published on February 22, 2018, with AEI and the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Full footnotes can be found here.