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Brain Gain
Small Towns Stealing Top Talent from New York, DC

Could the migration of young, well-educated Americans to US megacities finally be reversing itself? In The Atlantic, James Fallows discusses the possibility that smart and talented young professionals might start turning down Wall Street or Capitol Hill for the chance to work at the municipal level in smaller communities (h/t The American Conservative’s Jon Coppage).

Fallows’ piece is a follow-up to his longer, must-read account of Mayors who have put Washington to shame when it comes to reviving local economies. In this follow-up post, Fallows quotes from a letter he received from a small-town Mayor:

There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them. Doubtless there have always been extraordinary people drawn to local government, but something truly unusual is happening, in my view, in the caliber of young professionals drawn to this work now.

The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government. See, for example, the Code for America phenomenon.

In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.

Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don’t know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.

This is purely anecdotal and likely an optimistic gloss on a minor trend. Nevertheless, the anecdotes Fallows and his correspondent offer are encouraging. Sharp social critics of all political affiliations have spent recent years (rightly) lamenting the great American brain drain, in which all talent gets sucked up by industries located in national centers. But we have reasons both old and new to think that there’s nothing inevitable about this trend.

From the British citizens sent to once-rough-and-backward colonies like Australia and New Zealand to the Americans who broke new ground in places like Wyoming and Montana, talented upstarts have always sought to tame the “frontier”—a term that has typically described a sense of opportunity and progress than it does any particular region in time or geographical space. “Out West” you have the chance to prove yourself and your ideas, without the strictures of old ways of doing things to tie you down.

New technological and cultural trends making small-town life more attractive to young professionals are augmenting these deeply ingrained Anglo-American tendencies. The internet means you can stay in touch with the wider world, no matter where you go—from Kansas City to Provo, Utah. And urban hipster culture has spread far beyond America’s elite coastal bastions too: You can find foodie culture almost anywhere, for example—even in rural Vermont.

Other trends and counter-trends will undoubtedly continue push and pull people between national centers and small towns. But accounts like Fallows’s, and the American character itself, tell us that there’s nothing inevitable about the brain drain to America’s biggest cities.

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