The Migration of American Youth

“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
A famous line used and reused in the United States, and one that we hear often today. It was written by American journalist Horace Greely in 1865 at a point in history when the whole country was on the move – building, farming and claiming land, rushing toward open space and opportunity in the American West. Greely’s words reflected the attitude of the nation of that time. The country was growing, hands were needed and fortunes were waiting to be made. That generation responded swiftly and hungrily – it was, after all, their Manifest Destiny.
The attitude of the youth of the nation today is something quite different. Many now call my generation the new “Lost Generation”. There are no open skies or untouched soil waiting for us, and opportunities are slim. The Great Recession has taken a great toll. Those of us who would if we could spend our time and energy creating, building and imagining solutions for the problems that face us in the future, are now more often than not occupied solely with the task of daily survival.
Unlike our parent’s generation or that of Greely’s, the youth of today’s America has faced college tuition fees that are upwards of five figures for every year at many institutions. However, often the only way to get even a minimum wage job is to have at least a 4-year degree. At the same time, jobs have disappeared. The two largest employers in the US today are Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s – minimum wage traps one can hardly call a part of the American Dream, let alone self-sustaining employment. Finding work with enough pay to support oneself has become an almost insurmountable task for many of us, and returning home is often the only option. In a culture that views independence as one of its greatest virtues, the return to Mom and Dad’s house is the ultimate sign of failure. Sadly, I think many of my generation have taken that to heart.
So what to do? This is no longer a world of encapsulated nations. “Globalization” is the word of the day. And this is by no means a problem that remains confined to the United States. Save for a few regions, the whole world has had a taste of the Recession. But in some places, East Asia in particular, the future still seems to be surging ahead. And many of my generation American or otherwise, are picking up stakes and going with it.
In mid 2010, I threw in my lot, and took a job in Japan. I had been abroad before, but never like this. It was a trip that had no return date. Sticking to Horace Greely’s advice, I did go West. I took a flight across the ocean westward, until at some point that imaginary human line dissolved and West became East. I left to grow up with the world. I cannot say I regret this decision. Yes, I get homesick now and then. Yes, I miss my culture, the good and the bad. But it was a decision that I felt was necessary for my future, because back home I didn’t see one, at least not until long after my time had passed.
Many people my age are feeling the same and many are doing the same. There is a new kind of traveler out there now, a large group of people that are not in China for sightseeing or South Korea to study Business. There are young people from all over the western world – Europe, Australia, North America and elsewhere that have left their homes for better lives and opportunities. Are they immigrants? Only time will tell, as they say.
I have met scores of English teachers with Korean or Chinese or Japanese students. I have met long-time expats that now run their own bars or hostels on the beaches of Thailand or the bustling center of Tokyo. Their stories are inspiring. I’ve heard it said that the East has a head start on the old pillars of the West because in the past they have had to learn about us in order to do well in business and other kinds of competition on the global stage. They have had to familiarize themselves with our cultures and to use that knowledge to become bigger, smarter players in the global marketplace. Now, I think, it is our turn to learn about them.
When I look back at what I have seen and learned over my years abroad, about education and the universal human mind in Japanese classrooms, about spirituality in Himalayan Nepal, about human rights on the borders of Myanmar, I am grateful and inspired. There are so many of us out there, living, learning, growing and teaching. We enrich ourselves, we enrich each other, and someday, if and when we return, we will enrich our home countries.
I come from a long line of immigrants. My great-great-great-something grandfather came over the Atlantic to the New World in 1630. He and others in my family left the comforts of home and culture and set out for a mysterious place that offered both opportunity for success and the danger of failure. Of the 700 people in his fleet, 200 died on the way over. But he took that step, made that decision knowing what may wait for him on the other side of the water before he ever set foot on that boat. His story is similar to so many other thousands of stories that any American can tell about their grandfather’s grandfather, or even their own fathers and mothers. From a nation that was built on the hopes and backs of those leaving home to seek a better future, I see my actions as a continuation of a tradition of hope, and of the eternal search for something better. I think that man who stepped on that boat, whose son’s son’s son’s son would someday produce me, would be proud.

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