That neighbor you struggle to love as yourself? Better find a way to follow Jesus’ command, because the man on the other side of the fence is less likely than ever to move away. Same goes for everyone else you might want to escape, because the U.S. mobility rate fell to an all-time low last year when only 11.6 percent of Americans changed residences.
The U.S. Census Bureau has been tracking these statistics since 1948, when World War II veterans were bringing Baby Boomers home to new suburban abodes. It was a time of high mobility rates launched initially by the war mobilization and later accelerated by a new interstate highway system and the growth of commercial air travel. But these rates have slowed significantly in recent years, especially among the children of Baby Boomers.
“[S]ometime in the past 30 years, someone has hit the brakes and Americans—particularly young Americans—have become risk-averse and sedentary,” Todd and Victoria Buchholz wrote in a recent editorial for The New York Times. “The timing is terrible. With an 8.3 percent unemployment rate and a foreclosure rate that would grab the attention of the Joads [of The Grapes of Wrath], young Americans are less inclined to pack up and move to sunnier economic climes.”
Especially if you live and minister among young adults, you’ve probably witnessed this trend through prayer requests for desperate friends and family unable to find jobs and sell their devalued homes. Indeed, the Great Recession is a chief culprit in these changes. Todd Buchholz—author of Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race observes with Victoria—a student at Cambridge University—that the share of young adults living at home almost doubled between 1980 and 2008. Indeed, Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data released last week showed 21.6 percent of adults age 25 to 34 now live in multi-generational households, the highest such percentage since the 1950s and a nearly 6 percent increase since 2000. These figures provoke the Buchholz pair, or at least their Times editor, to judge today’s young adults as The Go-Nowhere Generation. They write:
All this turns American history on its head. We are a nation of movers and shakers. Pilgrims leapt onto leaky boats to get here. The Lost Generation chased Hemingway and Gertrude Stein to Paris. The Greatest Generation signed up to ship out to fight Nazis in Germany or the Japanese imperial forces in the Pacific. The ’60s kids joined the Peace Corps. But Generation Y has become Generation Why Bother.
Their solution? Move to North Dakota where the jobs are plentiful. They note but scoff at the remark of Harvard pollster John Della Volpe, who observes that today’s young adults aren’t eager to move because they enjoy living in their hometowns. The Buchholz plan for Generation Y closely resembles the good life as envisioned by Grapes of Wrath novelist John Steinbeck. This is a moral vision that celebrates individualism unleashed from the ways of the past. Read it yourself in Steinbeck’s 1960 memoir Travels with Charley in Search of America, where he celebrates a modern invention he believed would revolutionize American community for the better: the mobile home. Upset with your family? Need a new job? Don’t like the neighbors? Hook up the home and haul yourself toward new horizons.
“Central to modern individualism is the ability to separate oneself from home and family, to wander in pursuit of happiness, to leave communities (if only to rejoin others), to be fluid and unfettered,” observes scholar Susan J. Matt, author of the recently released book Homesickness: An American History.
Cuts Both Ways
Older Americans have largely adopted this prescription for good living. Baby Boomers popularized the suburban megachurch with ample parking for ecclesial commuters. They bought the big exurban homes and make the long drives to work. They relocated after earning promotions. And many have encouraged their children to seek education at colleges far away from home, decreasing the likelihood the graduates will come home, if such a place even exists. Yet the same capitalistic forces that once demanded geographic mobility now hinder it. Despite these parents’ best intentions, the economic advantages they enjoyed have not been transferred to their children.
“Wages for the young are falling, student debt is rising, and twentysomethings are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the country,” writes Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic. “This kind of economic uncertainty works as an anchor on national migration.”
But economic uncertainly doesn’t just affect national migration. These factors transform the shape of Christian discipleship. Prosperity led previous generations of American Christians to believe the good life could be attained through hard work, sacrifice, a well-timed relocation, and perhaps a little luck. Captivated by the same sense of opportunity captured in Steinbeck’s work, many left home to start anew, unhindered by the expectations and responsibilities of family and community. This spirit cuts both ways for evangelical churches. Leave your small Bible Belt town for college and work in the big city, and you’ll be less likely to follow in your parents’ faith. Leave your parents’ urban neighborhood for the suburbs and you may find evangelical megachurch spirituality more appealing than the Roman Catholic solidarity of your youth. Studies such as Robert Putnam’s American Grace document the unprecedented shifting between religious communities. Putnam reports that as many as 45 percent of white Americans have switched away from their parents’ religion at some point. Geographic mobility makes ecclesial mobility more plausible.
The Secret to Contentment
We don’t yet know where the stay-home generation will make their church homes. When the economy improves they may hit the road. But I wonder if something has changed for good during the Great Recession. Diminished economic opportunities might have taught a generation of young adults that they cannot depend on money to make them happy. Even in a better economy your job probably won’t last long; the company may not be able to afford you, or you may soon be looking for something else to improve your meager earnings. Organizational loyalty, up and down the corporate ladder, has collapsed.
It would be easy to follow the lead of Todd and Victoria Buchholz and blame Facebook and laziness for younger Americans’ unwillingness to drop everything and move to North Dakota. But I would hope other factors, chiefly love of neighbor and family, are at work. The grass is not always greener in the Peace Garden State. Your sins will follow you even to the Canadian border. It’s challenging but rewarding to stay home and learn to love the family, church, and neighbors who have known you since youth.
Americans may take the restless pursuit of prosperity at any cost for granted, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable in God’s eyes. To be clear, it’s not necessarily wrong to move for a new job and new start. Certainly it’s a noble calling to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But the national narrative that celebrates the free-ranging individual fosters sinful discontent. Far from liberating, this prescription for a life well-lived conforms us to the pattern of a world where the dollar justifies all. Whether you want to stay home or need to move away, the apostle Paul reveals a better way to guide us in these uncertain times:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (Philippians 4:11-12).
[M]y God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever (Philippians 4:19-20).