5 Best Cities for Avoiding the Real World

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- The real world is a scary place right now, especially for recent college graduates just trying to avoid it.

Unemployment is at 9.1% as job growth sputters, existing home sales are down 8.8% as credit tightens and down payments rise and the average cost of just about anything is up 3.7% in the past year, according to the Consumer Price Index. If you were a college student, would you want to do a keg stand of that reality after four years of the good life?

That answer's increasingly and emphatically no. The percentage of people ages 18 to 30 who are working full time dropped from 50% in 2006 to 41% last year, according to a report from the Pew Research Center last year. At the same time, the number who either work part time or are full-time students has increased three percentage points, to 24% and 13% respectively.

Almost 40% of those between 18 and 24 are in college, which is more than any generation before and fueled by those who went to community college or graduate school after giving up on the job hunt. As a result, only 63% of those 18 to 30 are employed, compared with 70% of Generation X and 66% of baby boomers when they were the same age.

Of those 18 to 30 who weathered the recession, 13% moved back home with their parents, another 15% took a roommate to cut costs and only 22% own their own home, less than any other generation before. If this is the battle they face, is facing it in a city with lots of people their own age, tons of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and other spots to hang out and cheap public transit or easy walking and biking paths too much to ask?

At least five cities don't think so. We found a handful of places that are a boon for young college grads and filled with activities and amenities for those not quite ready to let the real world shut down the party or yell "last call" just yet:

Portland, Ore.
Portion of population ages 20 to 34: 27.1%
In the words of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia star Fred Armisen, Portland is the city where young people go to retire.

For the 40% of Portland residents 25 and over with college degrees -- well above the U.S. average of 27.5% -- the city's 8.6% unemployment is only slightly better than the national average despite the presence of companies Nike ( NKE), Adidas, Intel ( INTC), Netflix ( NFLX) and Columbia Sportswear ( COLM). Even that's a fairly new development after the city's unemployment hovered around 11% early last year.

There may be some resentment about that under the surface, but generally Portland doesn't seem too bummed about it. The Deschutes Brewing brewpub, Rogue Ale Brewery "meeting rooms" and MacTarnahan's Taproom are still open, Powell's Books is still hosting readings, the coffee is still brewing at the city's myriad cafes and life is still wonderfully weird.

In a town with 250 miles of bike trails where 8% of commuters bike to work and the streetcars downtown are free, few people are going to tell recent grads to grow up and get a car already. With Mount Hood and the Cascades nearby, the Columbia River open for windsurfing and sailing and huge events such as the Rose Festival, beer festivals, Portland Timbers soccer games and MusicfestNW blowing through town every year, nobody's going to prevent post-collegians from going out and playing.

Finally, when the annual to-do list includes naked bike rides, urban Iditarod and grown-up soap-box derbies, there's no indication the party's ending anytime soon.

Portion of population ages 20 to 34: 30%

It's not teeming with flannel-clad, long-haired, dour newcomers like it was more than 20 years ago, but a look around Seattle's Ballard, Freemont and West Seattle neighborhoods and a quick listen to KEXP's playlist makes it clear young people are still coming and grunge has little to do with it.

More than 54% of Seattle residents have a bachelor's degree or better, but companies including Microsoft ( MSFT), Nintendo, Amazon ( AMZN), Starbucks ( SBUX) and Google ( GOOG) can only do so much to keep everyone paid. Seattle unemployment sits at 8.5%, but in a city where you can watch the tide come in on Alki Beach, fly a kite in Gasworks Park, bike the Burke-Gilman trail all the way out to Issaquah or sit in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops updating the resume or freelancing, it isn't so bad.

The city prides itself on being slightly more grownup than its Portland neighbors to the south, but that feat's much harder to pull off when going to record stores such as Easy Street Records and Silver Platters is still a thing people do on a regular basis and free concerts and movies at the Seattle Center, music-heavy festivals such as the Capitol Hill Block Party, Freemont Fair and West Seattle Summerfest and bigger events such as the Bumbershoot and Sasquatch still draw huge crowds.

Sasquatch is a little farther out of town in the Gorge Amphitheater along the Columbia River, but it highlights one of Seattle's best features for folks in a state of arrested development with lots of time on their hands: lots of nearby nature. The city is minutes away from Mount Rainier and other points in the Cascades, roaring waterfalls and railbed bike trails in the Snoqualmie Valley and islands on the Puget Sound that require only a ferry trip to access.

Grab a copy of The Stranger or Seattle Weekly and check out some shows at Neumo's or the Showbox, the city's thriving art scene or what's on tap at brewpubs such as Hale's Ales or Freemont Brewing. Escape it all for a night of camping in Mount Rainier's Summerland meadows and streams. Either way, Seattle provides young residents several alternate realities completely distinct from the mainstream definition of the "real world."

Austin, Texas
Portion of population ages 20 to 34: 33.5%
There's no better place to extend the college experience than in a college town, and there are few college towns as amenable to residents doing so as Austin.

Keeping weird hasn't hurt Austin in the least, as state and university jobs help keep the unemployment rate at a manageable 6.7%. With 43% of Austin holding a bachelor's degree or higher, that means a lot of good jobs that require a lot of good, fun places to spend a paycheck.

As the annual South By Southwest Music and Film Festival and Austin City Limits Festival make abundantly clear, there's no shortage of places in town to order a Shiner Bock, get some barbecue, listen to an indie band or see an art film. As the Alamo Drafthouse's latest showing of Slacker reminds everyone, Austin's been this way for a good, long time, and its definition of the "real world" is as much about Daniel Johnston art and songs and midnight beers and meals as weekly paychecks and clock punching.

Madison, Wis.
Portion of population ages 20 to 34: 34.3%
Yet another fine town for folks still enamored of college life, Madison's copies of The Onion, $1 beer specials, Wisconsin Badgers football games and bicycle commuters -- making up 5% of the population -- make it pretty easy to nearly double the length of the college experience without spending any extra time in a classroom.

Roughly one in every four Madison residents is a college student, and 51.1% of those who aren't have a bachelor's degree or better. As a result, it's only natural that the people around them occasionally get the urge to test their waning metabolism on burgers topped with fried egg and cheese curd or with pitchers of Sprecher.

That's all much easier to do in a town with a cost of living that almost caters to college students, but whose 5.3% unemployment rate provides a lot more disposable income for beers, shows, games, roommate-filled apartments and other post-collegiate amenities. Madison's a fairly laid-back place to begin with, but backward baseball hats don't need to be turned around in this town until well into one's late 20s.

Hoboken, N.J.
Portion of population ages 20 to 34: 51%
If Portland is where young people go to retire, Hoboken is where they go to heaven.

More than 60% of this town of little more than 40,000 is 34 or younger, though the scene on the streets and in the bars during its annual St. Patrick's Day parade (held a week before the actual holiday) would suggest otherwise. Hoboken is one in a long string of North Jersey cities that could vie for most bars per capita during its industrial days, but one of the few that can make similar claims today.

The bars and restaurants lining Washington Street, First Street, Hudson Street and the area next to the PATH train station into New York City have always been packed with young patrons sipping from their taps like they were fountains of youth, but newer establishments in developments along the parks that once served as the city's shipping piers are extending that vitality to an influx of empty nesters. Considering that 75% of the entire town has a bachelor's degree or better, just about everyone is entitled to a little collegiate nostalgia.

The summer music festivals, the Premier League soccer at the pubs and the Cake Boss' continued presence at Carlo's City Hall Bakery are all draws, but it's the PATH train and ferries that make Hoboken a dream destination. While completely separate from New York's subway system, the PATH takes Hobokenites directly to the bars, boutiques and restaurants of Hudson Street by the Christopher Street stop, the New York University hangouts near Ninth Street, Union Square and the Meatpacking District on 14th Street, all the Chelsea clubs and galleries around 23rd Street and Knicks and Rangers games at Madison Square Garden near 33rd Street. City dwellers will still refer to Hobokenites as bridge-and-tunnel, but young real-world-dodging Hoboken residents can rest soundly knowing they took fewer bridges and tunnels to get from their new homes than their former neighbors in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania did when they moved to Brooklyn or Queens.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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