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For millennials and Gen Z, the American dream may require a move

What if the best current route to social and economic mobility is simply more physical mobility?
Image: Workers install insulation on the sides of a destination recreational vehicle at a manufacturing facility in Elkhart, Ind., on Oct. 8, 2020.
Workers install insulation on the sides of a destination recreational vehicle at a manufacturing facility in Elkhart, Ind., on Oct. 8, 2020.Ty Wright / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the fall of 2018, Kyle Nossaman, an editor at Gear Junkie magazine, and his wife locked the door of their upscale apartment in Minneapolis and set off to explore America. Over the next year, they visited most of the lower 48 states and almost all the national parks. They rode mountain bikes and a motorcycle, camped and hiked, visited old friends and made new ones, all the while keeping up their jobs part time — even saving money along the way. And they did all this without ever getting on a plane — because they were driving and living in their very own converted school bus.

While the type of vehicle varies, more and more Americans are trying out this agile lifestyle. The RV Industry Association reported a nearly 200 percent jump in sales over 2019. Movements like #skooliebus on Instagram (featuring school buses retrofitted into mobile homes) point to the growing popularity of mobile and minimalist living.

Movements like #skooliebus on Instagram (featuring school buses retrofitted into mobile homes) point to the growing popularity of mobile and minimalist living.

Given the high cost of houses and the associated mortgage burden, home ownership can become a liability rather than an asset, as can education if graduates are saddled with debt. And home ownership and a college education have long been major tenets of the American Dream. But what if the best current route to social and economic mobility is simply more physical mobility? That doesn’t mean literally living out of a school bus or RV, but it does mean being able to move between regions, following jobs and opportunities.

The decade after the financial crash in 2008 witnessed a significant outflow from the Rust Belt to the South and West, but still far too few Americans are moving to improve their lot in life. From the 1940s to 1960s, about one-fifth of Americans moved every year as the population grew and expanded westward. More recently, however, domestic migration has stalled, other than the recent wave of well-off remote workers upgrading suburban homes. Ironically, this is because of underemployment: Americans should move to places where housing, healthcare, and education are cheaper, but can’t afford to. As today’s hordes of unemployed and underemployed youth look for work again, they may have to get moving to find it.

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At the moment, home purchases are ticking up amongst millennials with savings. For those confident that they can maintain or upgrade among digital jobs from the comfort of suburbia, it might be a good bet. But many of America’s youth have a cautious sixth sense about the future, precisely because they witnessed the financial crisis demolish their parents’ house value — and are well-placed to know the current price, since around half of young adults are currently back at home with their parents. As they struggle to find work and contribute to their parents’ mortgage payments, they can hardly be faulted for having more faith in mobility than property.

Harvard’s Raj Chetty has demonstrated that socioeconomic performance improves once families move to places with greater economic opportunity. Physical mobility, then, may be the best pathway to economic mobility. We should invest in people, not places, enabling every American to go wherever they need to make use of their skills and earn more.

Youth have little choice but to follow the money. A software engineer on a six-figure salary and a mountain of stock options doesn’t represent the average professional. Most people have more prosaic concerns, such as whether they can continue to afford their home and car payments. If they’re lucky enough to move someplace cheaper for remote work, their human resource departments may cut their salaries in accordance with cost-of-living rules to cut costs. But as executives move to places such as Austin and Denver, youth will likely gravitate behind them and wind up as suburban service workers, cooking, cleaning, babysitting, fitness training, tutoring kids, and performing other tasks for the new settled class. Tinder-like apps will match young people to jobs in every zip code.

We should invest in people, not places, enabling every American to go wherever they need to make use of their skills and earn more.

Now would seem an appropriate time for many American youth to take a leap of faith. In October 2020, roughly one-third of high school graduates were not enrolled in college. And jobs are not likely to just come to those who seek them. They should move to find them.

But this means we need a far more dynamic financial model around a mobile population. An unholy alliance in the housing sector has seen residents’ NIMBY-ism combined with local zoning over-regulation and construction developer oligopoly to deny affordable housing to those who need it, in the places they need it. Meanwhile, the real estate industry continues to pour concrete into suburban McMansions with seemingly little consideration for where good jobs or climate safety will be found a decade hence.

The answer to what people will do in the future very much depends on where they move to do it. Our main challenge is not man versus robots, but skills versus geography. Even as automation eliminates jobs, the demand for human talent to upgrade our infrastructure and social services remains enormous.

A mobile civilization requires people with skills, irrespective of whether there is a university degree attached to them. In fact, some of the most crucial areas facing labor shortages don’t even require a high school degree. Hence why Michael Chui of McKinsey argues that the solution to mass unemployment is mass redeployment.

In 2020, the White House’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board launched a “Find Something New” campaign to urge Americans to use apprenticeships as a path to well-paying jobs such as aerospace or wind turbine technician, computer hardware maintenance, or registered nurse. Across Europe and America, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has an apprenticeship program to get recruits prepared for jobs in land development, property management, analyzing real estate utilization data, and curating experiences in mixed use spaces. Industrial 3D printing operators earn as much as the average academic. This mission to build sustainable and inclusive habitats will attract youth who are fed up with decrepit infrastructure and want to make things that are useful rather than just consume things that are not. What John Seely Brown calls homo faber — man who makes — could take over from homo economicus.

But the American Dream isn’t just material; rather, it’s an idea that a generation can believe in. It’s more than a “what” question; it’s also about where and why. American youth should embrace mobility in all its forms as the path to answering those questions for themselves.

Moving is the ultimate expression of reinvention, and perhaps the most effective as well.

Excerpted from "MOVE: The Forces Uprooting Us" by Parag Khanna. Copyright © 2021 by Parag Khanna. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.