Margarita Barry was nursing her eight-month-old and browsing the news online when a headline caught her eye: “Detroit Declares Bankruptcy.” Pretty soon, her inbox and Facebook feed were clogged with reports from family and friends sharing the news that Detroit had become the largest U.S. city ever to file for Chapter Nine. Barry, a 28-year-old African American web designer and entrepreneur who was born and raised on the northwest side of the city, knew it would happen eventually. “It was only a matter of when,” she says.
One mosquito-heavy evening in May, I met 30-year-old Pat Valdez near San Antonio’s old Lone Star brewery. Valdez makes $15 an hour working in the human-resources department of Wells Fargo. She takes classes part-time at an online university, where she hopes to earn a degree in journalism. With $30,000 in student-loan debt, she’s living paycheck to paycheck. But unlike other Millennials struggling to make ends meet on their own, she’s not in dire straits. After a short, “way too expensive” stint in California living with her older brother, she’s back at home with her parents.
This past May, I visited Milwaukee and spent the day with a few young startup founders. You know the types: college-educated twenty-somethings who, upon graduating into a terrible job market, decided to create their own jobs instead. Bright, organized, and creative, they are the kind of Millennials often held up as the scrappy saviors of our brave new economic world. They told me how affordable Milwaukee was, especially compared to the city’s pricier neighbor, Chicago. Angela Damiani, director of NEWaukee, a networking organization for young professionals, and a homeowner at 27, observed that “if you want to start a business or follow a pipe dream, Milwaukee is the type of place you can do that, because it’s so small and cheap and so interconnected.”
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.
When I was around six years old, I begged my parents for a younger sister. When she failed to materialize, I dreamed up Shelly, who showed up in family portraits I drew in art class with a frilly dress and a Pebbles ponytail. When friends came over, I told them she was with the babysitter. At school, I bragged about my bottle-feeding skills. After my teacher made a concerned phone call about my lies, my mother—a journalist and feminist activist who had me at 42—sat me on her lap, and we had a surprisingly candid conversation about why she wasn’t going to have another baby. In her late 40s, she could have copped out and told me that biology wouldn’t let her. Instead, she brushed a curl from my face and said: “We’re happy with just you.”