Bright Kids, Small City: Millennials Stay Home

More and more, millennials stay home rather than venture to New York and L.A. where fewer job opportunities are made available. Meet the young adults who decided to stay in their hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

| March/April 2014

  • In small cities like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, there is no sudden influx of young, creative twentysomethings. Rather, for the first time in decades, Harrisburg is keeping its young people.
    Photo by Flickr/Broken Mirrors

Millennials stay home

After 24-year-Old Sam Melville graduated from a small arts school 20 minutes outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she made a beeline for Los Angeles, where she hoped to make it in the film industry. She scored a production internship and was excited to put her film degree to good use. But she spent most of her time working at a frozen yogurt shop 30 hours a week for minimum wage, a night job that was an hour-and-a-half bus ride from her house. She was scraping by, but her career was going nowhere. She didn’t have time to meet anyone. And she certainly didn’t have time to work on her own projects.

A few months later, she decided to move back to Harrisburg.

“I knew I’d have a social life there, and I knew it was cheap,” Melville said. Now working at a sandwich shop, “I make about the same amount that I did in LA, but I can survive off of it.” She’s about to sign a lease for a spacious house in Harrisburg with two other people for $850 a month, total—much more affordable than the $600 she was shelling out for a tiny room in Los Angeles on her own.

I went on a month-long road trip reporting on how young and broke people are faring in cities outside the traditional post-grad destinations like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C. Most of these places, like Detroit or New Orleans or Pittsburgh, are either actively wooing young people or acquiring them organically. But over the course of my tour, I discovered smaller places like Harrisburg, where there is no sudden influx of young, creative twentysomethings. Rather, for the first time in decades, Harrisburg is keeping its young people.

Like many Rust Belt cities, Harrisburg has experienced major brain drain—the mass exodus of educated young people from post-industrial cities to the coasts or the Sunbelt. On average, Pennsylvania has lost 20,000 18-to-24-year-olds a year since the 1960s. Growing up and getting out has simply been the expectation. “Well, you’re not supposed to be here. This is not the place for you,” Kari Larsen, a 26-year-old lifelong resident of central Pennsylvania, remembers being told when she complained to adults about the area’s stagnant culture. But thanks to the crappy economy, fewer young people are leaving the scene. After decades of steady loss, the 2010 census revealed a slight increase in the number of 24 to 35-year-olds in the wider Dauphin County area compared with 2000. The reversal in Harrisburg reflects a wider trend: Millennials are 40 percent less likely to move out of their home state than young people were in the 1980s.

For places like Harrisburg, retaining young people has its benefits. The brain gain is visible on the city’s streets. A new, locally-sourced coffee shop called Little Amps is full of young people wearing flip flops and messy ponytails at 11 a.m. on a weekday. It opened up a few blocks away from the MakeSpace, a new community arts center. Stash, a vintage clothing shop, is also new. Olde Uptown’s beautiful brick buildings are now dotted with plaques from the Historic Harrisburg Association, touting newly completed restorations. The Midtown Scholar, a sprawling bookstore owned by mayoral candidate Eric Papenfuse, recently moved to a larger location.

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