At the end of one sticky month during the summer of 2017, Elizabeth Bolles will have finished packing the contents of her Riverbend apartment. She, her partner, their two young sons and two dogs will then pile into her Subaru and drive 350 miles to Houston, where her partner will start a new job.
The move is the upshot of six years of frustration and disappointment for Bolles since she graduated from Tulane University's law school in 2011. Since then, she's struggled to find a well-paying job in New Orleans; she's been runner-up for several positions and has worked odd jobs and short-term gigs to make ends meet. She's in the same boat as many of her friends and acquaintances in the city — a one-time National Merit Scholar who's been waiting tables for a decade, a buddy with two doctorates who can't find a professional job.
"You hear one person's story," Bolles says, "and you think maybe there's something going on with them, maybe there's something wrong with this person, maybe they're difficult to work with, blah blah. Right?
"But you start hearing multiple stories from multiple people, people who are smart, ethical, hardworking, driven ... and they just can't find anything."
It's a strange time for the young and ambitious in New Orleans.
In the years following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, the city has loomed large in the popular imagination. Capitalizing on a narrative of recovery, local business and civic leaders have cast New Orleans as a revitalized, dynamic metropolitan area and an ideal home for millennials and young professionals.
In terms of demographics, at least, younger people are ascendant in the city: Recent research from the Urban Land Institute charts an 8.5 percent increase in the number of millennials moving to New Orleans between 2010-2015, making it one of the country's most popular destinations for that age group. Michael Hecht, CEO of the economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc. (GNO Inc.), says young people are arriving to take advantage of the area's storied culture; a lower cost of living than in major metro areas such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago; and the sense of purpose offered by a city on the mend.
But some of those same young people are quietly expressing doubts about the viability of remaining in New Orleans. They're talking about a perceived lack of career opportunities, compensation they say hasn't kept pace with the rest of the country, and a cost of living (particularly in terms of housing) that strains people at all but the highest income levels. There's also frustration over what many characterize as widespread institutional failure, from crumbling infrastructure to a network of local schools that varies wildly in quality — a serious drawback for people ready to start families.
Gambit spoke with Bolles, an aspiring lawyer, and people between the ages of 27 and 41 who work or recently have worked as a special education teacher, a hotel sales professional, a city criminal intelligence analyst, a film industry professional and a digital marketing and social media manager — people who should be poised to make up the next generation of the city's middle and professional classes. Instead, they paint a dispiriting portrait focused on limited prospects, lackluster pay and rising expenses — and they almost universally push back on the notion that they're thriving.
Kia Groom spent eight months on the job market before being hired for a marketing and graphic design position at a local women's clothing company at a starting rate of $13 an hour (about $27,000 a year). Recently she interviewed for a different marketing job that drew 350 other applicants. She and her partner have discussed moving to his hometown of Baton Rouge or somewhere else in search of lower housing costs.
Ryan Harris moved to the city in 2008 anticipating a hot film industry job market related to Louisiana's film tax credit program. He found unsteady work, dismal wages compared to other markets and rents that seemed to rise exponentially during the years he lived here. He moved away in 2014 to pursue a different career.
Joseph Smith (not his real name), who works in the sales department at a luxury hotel, is baffled by a sense of financial insecurity he says he never experienced living elsewhere. He says pay for comparable positions at other properties can be as much as $25,000 more annually, even in places with a lower cost of living. "[In our business], the people that write the checks say [New Orleans] is not a major market," he says. "But then the cost of living reflects a major city, so it's sort of like you can't really have both."
Lindsay Mitchell, a special education teacher, had to look outside Orleans Parish to find an entry-level teaching job. Her boyfriend has been trying to find lab tech work, but nothing seems to pay any better than bartending. They recently moved to Mid-City after being priced out of their Treme apartment.
This widespread sense of economic pressure is compounded by day-to-day aggravations of life in the city, from potholes to spotty mail service, which sometimes are framed as quirkiness. "So many little problems kind of stack up and exacerbate each other," Mitchell says.
But inconveniences often have financial implications. New Orleans' public transportation system is widely viewed as unreliable, making it difficult to get around without a car — which then requires insurance in one of the country's most expensive markets. Infrastructure issues can lead to pricey car repairs. Uneven school quality can mean overpaying for an apartment, like Bolles and her partner, who stayed put for many years so their eldest son could attend Lusher Charter School.
"[The good schools] are not attainable for most people who live in the city," Bolles says. "We want to stay [in New Orleans] ... but it would be a disservice to our children not to move."
In some ways, these testimonies are a little confusing, since these people all have undergraduate and in most cases graduate degrees. There's no obvious reason why they're struggling. But their experiences convey a shakiness to the notion that New Orleans is a city where young people can, theoretically, begin a career and put down roots.
"I think the narrative of the young professional Mecca is a cooked-up one," Harris says bluntly.
And whether or not one endorses the rise of this class in the city, its difficulties indicate clouds on the city's economic horizon. After all, if emerging professionals have trouble shouldering stagnant wages and unaffordable rents, how must those same conditions look to line cooks, retail clerks, fast food workers and day care employees?
"I'm [in a] double-income [household], no kids ... and I'm complaining [about money]? That's a real problem," Smith says. "The people who lose ultimately are the lowest-income, the most on the fringe, who don't have the luxury to get up and go."
It's hard to quantify a person's sense that they aren't making it, or to pin down the truth about a job market based on interviews and anecdotes. But recent data substantiate impressions of scant well-paying opportunities, depressed wages and rising living costs.
A 2015 summary of Brookings Institution research reported that seven out of 10 jobs being created in New Orleans are in "low-wage" industries, such as tourism, retail and administrative services. The labor market analysis group Emsi found that 36 percent of New Orleans' job growth since 2010 has been in restaurants alone.
A July 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report identified wages below the national average throughout New Orleans, but particularly in professional occupational groups. In management, business and financial operations and computer and mathematical fields, wages were 14 to 19 percent lower than the national average; health care and support professionals are paid 13 percent less. A 2015 Data Center report focused on low-wage workers found that almost 60 percent of jobs across the region in 2011 paid less than $39,996 per year.
Lower wages are expected in less expensive metro areas, but as has been widely noted, New Orleans' cost of living is rising. One of the biggest reasons is spiking housing costs. In July, rent-analysis company ABODO found median rents for a New Orleans one-bedroom apartment ran $1,397 per month — higher than median rent in Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; Denver; Philadelphia; Nashville, Tennessee; Las Vegas; Baltimore; Houston and many other places.
"This should be a city where if you make $50,000 a year, it's just you, you should be OK. But you're not. You're struggling," says Housing NOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris. In characterizing the city's housing difficulties, Morris describes an overheated market with high rents that don't seem based on wages or demand, unusually high utility rates and an economy she says hasn't "earned" its housing crisis.
Hecht of GNO Inc. says the cost of living in New Orleans is still below the national average. One of the organization's internal reports based on Council for Community and Economic Research's ACCRA Cost of Living Index shows New Orleans as having an only marginally higher cost of living than Austin, Texas or Raleigh, North Carolina and a vastly less expensive "sticker price" than Washington, D.C. or San Francisco.
But can one compare New Orleans to Austin, where median income is higher ($57,689 to New Orleans' $36,792 in 2015) and the city proper is three times as large? Or to metropolitan centers such as Washington, D.C., especially when, as Hecht acknowledges, the density of opportunity (the number and size of companies, the number of jobs) falls short locally?
Local business leaders remain optimistic about the future of young professionals in the city, and offered a few responses to reports of challenges.
"The frustration that you're describing is because we're still in this rebuilding phase and bringing back an economy," Hecht says. "We still don't yet have as diverse a set of jobs as we want to get to. As we grow, we're going to have growing pains."
He says increased mobility, like enhanced public transportation between the city and the surrounding suburbs, would ease pressure on the housing market and make it easier for people to envision a long-term life here. Hecht predicts a greater economic turnaround will take time — perhaps as long as 30 years.
"Many people who came here after [Hurricane Katrina] ... are now realizing that they have to move on to their career," he says. "There are going to have to be some folks that go to New York or Houston, because the volume of opportunity there is so much more advanced."
At 504ward, which works to attract, retain and develop emerging professionals, Executive Director Mary Matthews doesn't necessarily see these difficulties as unique to New Orleans. She says it's hard to find a good job in a lot of places. Her organization is focused on connecting people with opportunities more efficiently, and she emphasizes the city's unusually high quality of life: its parks, walkable neighborhoods, bike paths and festivals.
Courtney Williams, CEO of the the education startup Torsh, says the business community could take steps to refine and share its data on what kinds of jobs are available, and adds the tech community in particular could improve its outreach to young professionals of color, which he views as an underutilized resource. Civic leaders need to do their part to mitigate rising living costs, such as addressing housing shortages.
It's a tough problem, he says, because it doesn't make good business sense for employers to raise wages indefinitely — but the same cool economic rationality is just as valid for those who live and work here.
"If you're getting paid less, you can't live in a city that's each year costing more and more," he says. "It's tough to act against your own economic self-interest."
There's a predictable argument some might make about all this, something about "good riddance" to younger people who are dissatisfied and increasingly willing to leave — particularly post-Katrina transplants, who sometimes are blamed for surging living costs in the city.
But the departure of one generation of young people won't create a more viable job market or fix ongoing cost-of-living issues. And a revolving door of short-term younger residents who move to New Orleans for a few years, figure out it's not a sustainable place to live and then leave benefits no one. It's in the community's best interest to cultivate young people, both transplants and long-term residents, who will build careers, have families and become advocates in schools and local politics — and who will come back to rebuild after disasters.
The classic arguments for living in New Orleans focus on specialness: its rich history, Carnival, neighbors on the porch who say hello when you walk by. But at some point, steadily increasing economic pressure will outweigh charm. And current difficulties expressed by young professionals suggest a precarious future for New Orleanians without as many options, who don't have job offers in another city or a hometown to go back to.
Harris, the former film industry professional, often wonders what could have kept him in New Orleans.
"I don't believe there's a day where I don't wish I could come back, and wish that things were different there for me," he says. "It's a wonderful city to live in, if you can afford it."