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Go West, Young Children


A recent article in Forbes describes how two young venture capitalists are attempting to turn Boise, Idaho, into a High Plains Silicon Valley, or perhaps the next Austin, Tex. The founders of Village Ventures, in Williamstown, Mass., who make a policy of investing in startup companies in otherwise overlooked parts of the country, are attracted by Boise’s low cost of living, tiny crime rate, abundant natural splendors and burgeoning cultural resources, including a ballet company, an opera and a symphony.

Another article, which recently surfaced in my local paper, indicates that somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the people aged 20 to 34 living in the seven-county area ringing New York City cannot afford their own apartments and are forced to live with their parents. Citing a report entitled “The Crisis of Affordable Housing for Hudson Valley’s Working People,” the article suggests that as many as 240,000 young people are still living with their parents due to exorbitant rents and home prices. And the situation isn’t likely to improve anytime soon; housing is not getting any cheaper, salaries are not rising and the region absorbs a steady influx of starry-eyed young people from other parts of the country who make it that much harder for the locals.

This dire situation is likely the norm in premium real estate markets such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. And if it is troubling to the young people themselves, it is equally worrisome to the millions of middle-aged Americans who were looking forward to their empty-nest years. Speaking as the parent of a 20-year-old college sophomore and a 17-year-old who will be going to college in two years, I can say that the thought of having adult children living under my roof is not at all appealing. I don’t want to share the car. I don’t want to share the remote. And I certainly don’t want to share my money.

Yet perhaps there is a silver lining in all the drama. This great country was built by young people who steadily pushed westward because they could not afford to buy land in the heavily populated east. Today, an identical situation prevails. For hundreds of thousands of young urban professionals living on the East Coast or in cultural meccas like San Francisco, the dream of owning a home in the towns where they grew up is unlikely to ever materialize-at least not anytime soon. The obvious solution? Move to Boise.

I am not trying to be flippant here. Boise, friends assure me, is a delightful place to live and raise a family, with good schools, fancy restaurants and friendly neighbors. Moving to Boise is not like moving to Romania, and those who make a go of it during the hejira in the Idahoan hinterland can always move back home when their financial situations improve. As for those who do not favor Idaho, there are many other cities to choose from.

In the ’70s, the German government, alarmed by declining birth rates, offered financial incentives to foreigners willing to live in Berlin. One of my friends, a French psychologist, took them up on it and has lived in that remarkable city for a quarter century. Perhaps something similar is needed today. Perhaps small municipalities far removed from the glamorous Babels could make it worthwhile for young people to relocate westward, southward, northward. Perhaps in time, the big cities, which can always depend on a steady influx of talented young people from the provinces, will be forced to think about constructing more affordable housing, a notion that seems to have gone out of fashion in this dark era of gargantuan McMansions and hyperthyroid starter chateaux.

Would I personally want to relocate from the suburbs of New York to the High Plains? No. I did things the other way around, transplanting myself from Philadelphia, a city where housing is cheap, to Manhattan, where it is not. But when I was young and living in a city where I felt I had no future, I got up and went. Today, if I had to choose between having one-or both-of my children living under my roof long after the natural parenting cycle had come to an end, I would buy them a plane ticket to Boise, Austin, Las Vegas or any of the other fast-growing cities. A century ago, a famous man advised impoverished youngsters with big dreams and small incomes to “go west.” History has a way of repeating itself, kids.

Start thinking Idaho.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.