Today, there are lots of articles telling young people which cities have the most college gradates, the highest wages, and the most jobs. These are perfectly useful guides to the near future. But it's interesting to look back at the best cities for young workers in 1980 to see how often history intervenes with extrapolated trends.
The graph below considers the ten large U.S. cities (with population greater than 450,000) with the highest median incomes for young workers in 1980, according to Census figures. Flint and Detroit finish one and two. If you click on the 2013 number at the top, you can see how those cities fared over the next 33 years.
For an at-a-glance look at this same dataset, here's one graph showing the 33-year change in median income by city.
In 1980, Flint's Median Income Was Higher Than San Francisco's. Then This Happened.
The cities in red suffer from various afflictions. For Flint, Detroit, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, the demise of manufacturing, steel production, and other off-shored blue-collar work have gutted these foundries of good middle-class jobs. It's also conceivable that Houston, which has recently added jobs faster than any other large city, has incorporated so many immigrants and lower-skill workers from other states in the last few decades that the sheer weight of its low-wage work has pulled down the median age for young people.
One theory for why rich cities tend to get richer is "cumulative advantage," which is more commonly known as the rich-get-richer principle. The idea is that cities with thriving industries (consulting in Boston; software in San Jose; commodities in Chicago) attract the smartest workers, whose talents add to the success of those industries, redoubling their ability to attract the smartest workers. Talent attracts talent. Business attracts business. A growing tax base supports better schools, nicer parks, and safer neighborhoods. Economic growth thrives on a feedback loop that, from a certain angle, appears to be infinite and unbreakable. In short: The rich get richer, forever.