The Millennial Generation—us hopeful, ambitious and audacious souls born from 1981-2000—began turning 30 this past January.
Millennials are the generation Boomers cultivated with a boundless optimism to change the world. Digitally native and brazenly achievement oriented, we inherited faith in America and our chance to be part and parcel of its next great chapter. Millennials were told over and again – with endless trophies reinforcing our every step – that the American Dream was ours to make.
I squeezed into this lot at the front end and it strikes me that America must feel differently for Millennials than generations past. TheMillennial dream to change the world can seem ephemerally naive now that jobs are scarce, times are tough, and “change we can believe in” looks more and more like “change we’ll be promised again.”
Signs fester from the presumptive pinnacles of America. From Wall Street to K Street, there’s a deficit deeper than all the rest: namely, the collapse of meaning and purpose for the striving American life. Political impotence, digital saturation, and a fractured global economy threaten the boundless optimism that has sustained America for generations.
At 29, this spring marks my final semester at graduate school in Boston. I, like millions of my Millennial peers, must answer the ultimate question of our ensuing adulthood: What will you do? Where will you go to fulfill your promise?
The strategy of leaving for greater opportunities was once as American as apple pie. The seeking American’s mission was simple: Go west young man! From the Wild-West to the Space-Age, a frontier ethos penetrated American consciousness. Intrepid souls went where others dared not, weaving the fabric of the nation with purpose and nerve.
Yet Millennials, it appears, replaced this frontier heritage with mythic achievement ladders. Myopic ambition fuels Millennials up narrow rungs of success, flocking us wholesale into the throes of DC’s hollowing halls, New York’s gilded markets and Hollywood’s reality-stricken stage.
Yet, with no other purpose but to climb, these ladders increasingly fail to satisfy Millennial aspirations.
This poses a stark question: what should be, or could become, the Millennial Frontier? Where can Millennials go to feed that fire inside to fulfill our mission to change the world?
The answer is Detroit.
People sneer – or worse – that anyone who wants to live in Detroit must be crazy. Perhaps. But if you seek to make a difference in America then I say: Go to Detroit young man! I didn’t grow up there, but after living in Detroit’s heart for four years, and since leaving for graduate school, I can now attest to what I always felt deep in my bones: Detroit offers a life of purpose worthy of the Millennial spirit.
It’s why I’m coming back.
No doubt, like frontiers past, Detroit can be hard on the soul. Detroit’s epic fall was real: losing over half its population, seeing the city burn in racial conflict and witnessing blight from decades of neglect devastated the city. Industrial decline and the relentless stream of upsetting headlines—from failing schools to embarrassing politicians to entrenched poverty—all perpetuate Detroit’s denigration.
Yet despair yields to inspiration. And, like frontiers past, opportunity ultimately trumps.
Detroit’s opportunity is vast. Detroit can be America’s next frontier for urban ecological renewal, for understanding how humanity confronts the challenges of a shrinking city, for surmounting egregious inequality, and for consciously nurturing interracial community. Detroit offers Millennials a unique destination to experience an authentic community gritty with passion. In Detroit, Millennials can join the fight for a just and sustainable future and demonstrate America’s character once more.
So, it’s not from pity, and it’s certainly not to save Detroit.
It’s so Millennials can save themselves.
Detroit was America’s frontier once before. Having conquered the West, the industrial age and the promise of an honest days pay for an honest days work propelled middle class comforts for the masses; almost as quickly, the residue of this ethos met rapid deindustrialization and sealed for a generation or more the fact that opportunity looked brightest for those who left.
Yet, for Millennials near and far, Detroit’s canvass is refreshingly authentic. While Detroit’s climb is perilous, it’s purposeful; its challenges stark, but meaningful. Most dismiss the raw opportunity that rushes through Detroit, but where all others see epic decline, there is profound possibility.
To my Millennial peers: if you’re looking at the horizon wondering what frontier is worthy of your talent and where authentic community and meaningful work exists, then take up that restless American tradition seeping inside you and leave. Don’t follow your peers up narrow achievement ladders; don’t go where others climb.
Come instead to Detroit.
And start building.