Job seekers wait in line at a construction job fair in New York, August 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
“I hate to say this, ‘cause it sounds so cynical,” says 24-year-old Alyssa Dinberg, as she swats her cat away from the couch we’re sitting on. “But it almost feels like America is on the verge of crumbling…and I don’t really want to be here when it crumbles.”
Dinberg went to the University of Alabama, had a brief stint at a marketing job in Pennsylvania and is now back in Tuscaloosa doing Americorps. She fits the description of many young people I’ve spoken with recently: She’s opting to stay in a small Southern city to be a big fish in a small pond, to be able to live comfortably on her meager pay rather than drown in bills living in a large metropolis. But she’s taking that strategy a step further. She’s planning to move to Israel to be a teaching fellow next year, and she’s not sure if she ever wants to move back.
“I’m young, and I just don’t feel like anything is holding me back,” she says. Plus, “they pay for your room and board and they give you a stipend. Sounds like a pretty good deal.”
The idea of becoming a financial exile—a recession-era job seeker who feels they’d fare better overseas—lurked behind many of the discussions I had during my Southern road trip. Sometimes it was wishful thinking: “Maybe I’ll just give Sallie Mae the finger and escape to Thailand.” Sometimes the application was already signed and shipped, like Dinberg’s. The prospect of giving up on the American system altogether has a certain appeal as income inequality grows and the cost of living rises; I often fantasize about abandoning my paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle in New York City and moving away, not just to a cheaper American city but to a country with socialized medicine and a low unemployment rate.
The thing is, this doesn’t happen much. For those of us who are childless and young enough to reinvent ourselves, moving out of the country may seem like a perfect antidote in theory. But in practice, we’re opting to stick it out stateside. The ex-pat community has grown a few percentage points during the recession, but people aren’t exactly fleeing in droves. If anything, young people are feeling more chained to their hometowns than ever due to a whole array of financial reasons.
When it comes to moving abroad, though, the hesitance has to be about more than money. Once a plane ticket is taken care of, the cost of living somewhere like South America or Asia usually plummets. It may also be an innate sense that yes, things are crumbling, but we can do something about it. Millennials have suffered the worst during the downturn, but they’re also the most optimistic about the future of the economy. Some have chalked this up to a naïve faith in innovation and technology; I see it as a heightened sense of class and political consciousness now that the bubble has burst. Perhaps we feel more motivated to sweep our own doorsteps.
Consider Tracey Brown, the co-op grocery store worker I met in New Orleans. She contemplates leaving all the time. Her girlfriend is a native of India, and she’s always coaxing Brown to escape with her. But Brown knows she’ll never go. The United States may be a screwed-up country, but it’s hers. It needs her.
“It’s like an abusive relationship,” she says, only half-joking. “I have to stay here even though it’s bad for me, because I keep hoping I can change it.”
Read Nona Willis Aronowitz’s travel dispatches here.