There's Good News for People Who Go Back to Their Hometowns
Five years ago, I spent Fourth of July alone in a fit of melodramatic tears on the kitchen floor of my mom's condo.
There was nothing truly devastating to be so upset about, and yet such outbursts were not uncommon for me that summer. I had just graduated from college and was working part time as a bank teller near my hometown, where my favorite pastime was to call myself a "pathetic failure" over and over again in my head.
That night, by the time I finally peeled myself off the floor to watch the town fireworks, I was surrounded by booze, laughter and the love of my closest friends and family. And yet my ears were still ringing with the mantra that accompanied each of my meltdowns:
I need to get out of here.
Sticking around is for losers: Maybe we can blame Taylor Swift's 2010 song "Mean," in which she proved her independence by ditching a Podunk village of haters for the bright lights of a "big ol' city." Or maybe it was when Kelly Clarkson sang about the imperativeness of breaking away from her small town or when the Dixie Chicks fled home for self-discovery and success via wide open spaces.
For me, it started in the '90s with an Eric Matthews storyline from Boy Meets World, in which his deeply felt shame over his "townie" status drives him into a permanent spot on his parents' couch eating Cocoa Puffs. Not helping matters was Sister Act 2, in which the message was explicit, even when sung: "If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention."
While this motivational refrain might have served me well in planting a seed or two of ambition, it also solidified for me the inextricable link between "being somebody" and "going somewhere."
And beyond the "slacker" label is also the false idea that staying in one's hometown results in an impaired world view — a lack of culture, a love of chain restaurants and malls and an ignorant opinion (if any) regarding the latest current event.
For bright futures, big cities required? The data supports the idea that millennials have internalized pop culture's "breakaway" narrative, so much so that U.S. cities have boomed. Nielsen reported last year that 62% of people aged 18 to 36 claim they prefer cities to small towns. "As a result," the report states, "for the first time since the 1920s, growth in U.S. cities outpaces growth outside of them."
"At this point, the prognosis does not look good for much of small town America," according to William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution, in response to our generation's collective rejection of hometowns.
While this trend can be explained by a number of factors — college location, ease of living, the job market — there's no denying that the avoidance of townie stigma is a happy bonus for many young people who leave home.
"I'm just glad I'm not one of those people on Facebook," Sarah*, a 29-year-old young professional in New York, told Mic. "The ones who are home and just, like, stagnant, you know?"
That sense of superiority has become the default for both those who've left, as well as those who've stayed. "I try not to think about the fact that I am one of those people who still lives in their hometown; that I am the pathetic, aimless stereotype," wrote one blogger earlier this year.
Finding a happy present: I ended up leaving my hometown a few months after July 4, and it took about five minutes of city life to make me second-guess the decision. My hiply lit, friend filled Instagram posts belied the fact that city life was too loud, lonely and stressful for my liking.
There were plenty of aspects of hometown life that just made me happier. And I'm not the only one.
"I often think about moving back home," said Marie*, a 26-year-old young professional who's lived in the city for eight years. "It's a comfort zone, mostly because my family and lifelong friends live there. And I miss the community at large. You just feel immediately understood. That rarely happens in New York."
Those who have done it can happily report that it's true. "I absolutely love it here," Steven, a 28-year-old English professor and pop culture blogger, told Mic of his small hometown. "It's a tight-knit community with a lot of charm... I found my calling in tranquility and the suburban life, not surrounded by skyscrapers."
Yet the message persists that our only options are to "kill it" in hip cities or generally fail at life in our childhood bedrooms. The only way to exit the city with any grace is to quit your job with a flourish, ditch all your stuff and go on an extravagant Eat, Pray, Love-style worldwide journey — at least that makes for some good wanderlust porn.
But limiting ourselves to those options misses the main point, as the Onion illustrated so clearly in a 2013 article titled "Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown."
I eventually moved to a suburb in order to be closer to home while still benefitting from the urban job market. When I visit my hometown, as I frequently do, I spend time drinking cheap beers with young people who didn't give into the breakaway narrative, who have managed to create fulfilling lives for themselves in our tiny little town and, in doing so, help dismantle pop culture's townie stigma.
Because when it comes to real life, there are no winners and losers — there are only those who are breaking down on kitchen floors on the Fourth of July, and those who aren't.
* Names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.