To be sure, there will be 15 million to 20 million new urban dwellers by 2050. Many will live in what Wharton business professor Joseph Gyourko calls “superstar cities,” such as San Francisco, Boston, Manhattan and western Los Angeles—places adapted to business and recreation for the elite and those who work for them. By 2050, Seattle, Portland and Austin could join their ranks.
But because these elite cities are becoming too expensive for the middle class, the focus of urban life will shift to cities that are more spread out and, by some standards, less attractive. They’re what I call “cities of aspiration,” such as Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte. They’ll facilitate upward mobility, as New York and other great industrial cities once did, and begin to compete with the superstar cities for finance, culture and media industries, and the amenities that typically go along with them. The Wall Street Journal noted that commercial success has already turned Houston, once considered a backwater, into “an art mecca.”
One of the least anticipated developments in the nation’s 21st-century geography will be the resurgence of the region often dismissed by coastal dwellers as “flyover country.” For the better part of the 20th century, rural and small-town communities declined in percentage of population and in economic importance. In 1940, 43 percent of Americans lived in rural areas; today it’s less than 20 percent. But population and cost pressures are destined to resurrect the hinterlands. The Internet has broken the traditional isolation of rural communities, and as mass communication improves, the migration of technology companies, business services and manufacturing firms to the heartland is likely to accelerate.
Small Midwestern cities such as Fargo, North Dakota, have experienced higher than average population and job growth over the past decade. These communities, once depopulating, now boast complex economies based on energy, technology and agriculture. (You can even find good restaurants, boutique hotels and coffeehouses in some towns.) Gary Warren heads Hamilton Telecommunications, a call center and telecommunications-services firm that employs 250 people in Aurora, Nebraska. “There is no sense of dying here,” Warren says. “Aurora is all about the future.”
Concerns about energy sources and hydrocarbon emissions will also bolster America’s interior. The region will be pivotal to the century’s most important environmental challenge: the shift to renewable fuels. Recent estimates suggest the United States has the capacity to produce annually more than 1.3 billion dry tons of biomass, or fuels derived from plant materials—enough to displace 30 percent of the current national demand for petroleum fuels. That amount could be produced with only modest changes in land use, agricultural and forest-management practices.
Not since the 19th century, when the heartland was a major source of America’s economic, social and cultural supremacy, has the vast continental expanse been set to play so powerful a role in shaping the nation’s future.
What the United States does with its demographic dividend—its relatively young working-age population—is critical. Simply to keep pace with the growing U.S. population, the nation needs to add 125,000 jobs a month, the New America Foundation estimates. Without robust economic growth but with an expanding population, the country will face a massive decline in living standards.
Entrepreneurs, small businesses and self-employed workers will become more common. Between 1980 and 2000 the number of self-employed individuals expanded, to about 15 percent of the work force. More workers will live in an economic environment like that of Hollywood or Silicon Valley, with constant job hopping and changes in alliances among companies.