On mobility and the non-interchangeability of places: a rant

It’s been a while since I read anything that pushed as many of my buttons — and made me scratch my head as much — as this New York Times op-ed piece by Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz did. They begin with the claim that “Americans are supposed to be mobile and even pushy,” and go on to find, in a a number of recent trends, evidence that younger Americans are falling short of this supposed ideal of mobility. Younger Americans aren’t as willing to move across the country to pursue new jobs as previous generations were! They’re living with their parents! They’re not even bothering to get their driver’s licenses anymore!* They use the word “random” a lot, and they suspect that chance and luck may play a role in their chances of finding employment!** All of which, claim the Buchholzes, are signs that the younger generation suffers from “risk aversion,” “complacency,” a “sedentary” and “stuck-at-home” mindset. Which, in turn, are serious defects, because Americans are supposed to be mobile and pushy, goshdarnit!

I could spend a much longer blog post unpacking what I find problematic about all this, particularly the equation of driving with initiative and success, but I want to zero in on just one: that it’s somehow a sign of weakness, or something, that young people aren’t willing to move long distances for a job. Because that assumption’s been on my mind a lot lately, and it bugs the living daylights out of me.

The Buchholzes cite, as a representative example, an anecdote related by John Della Volpe of the Harvard Institute of Politics: “I spoke with a kid from Columbus, Ohio, who dreamed of being a high school teacher. When he found out he’d have to move to Arizona or the Sunbelt, he took a job in a Columbus tire factory.” According to the Buchholzes, that kid is being downright un-American not to move to Arizona. Their assumption seems to be that there’s no reason why a person should be attached to a particular place, or why one place might be any more desirable than another. Arizona, Ohio, what’s the difference? Why not go for the better job?

Except there is a difference. No matter how many of the same chain stores are in both places, the Southwest and the Midwest are not identical and interchangeable. I lived in the Midwest for eleven years, and for most of those years I really missed the East Coast where I grew up. Small towns will never be “home” for me the way large cities are, just as the places I love might feel completely wrong to someone from California, or Texas, or Minnesota, or to someone who loves open spaces and quiet. And I have a hard time seeing how that’s a character flaw.

Place matters when you’re trying to decide what to do with your life. And so do the support networks that exist or don’t exist in particular places. What if that kid in Columbus, in addition to liking the place, doesn’t want to leave behind everyone he knows, particularly in tough economic times when being with friends and family will help keep him sane, and maybe provide a bit of a safety net as well if he needs one?

A couple of months ago, Karen G. Schneider at Free Range Librarian wrote a post about finding one’s “place” that resonated a lot with me:

For many years I preached — and lived — the mantra of “geographic flexibility.” Education, jobs, other opportunities: first I, then we, could follow the wind. I have repeatedly counseled librarians that they had to have geographic flexibility for their careers. I judged them for not seeking jobs far and wide. I looked to myself as an example–I, who had lived worldwide.

Yet it took the Florida Experience to teach me why some people — and I now realize I am in their numbers — have an allegiance to the place they call home so powerful that it is on the other issues in life that they compromise. It’s not that Florida was insanely horrible; it’s that experiences that were less than stellar (and life always has them) took place in a context of alien other-ness — and it was this alien experience that made them sad, at times overwhelmingly so.

This. If you’re living somewhere that doesn’t feel like your home, ordinary problems setbacks are much, much harder to bear. Is it really so difficult to understand why someone who loves Ohio and has lots of ties there wouldn’t want to relocate to Arizona?

If younger people are figuring this out at an earlier stage in their lives, then you know what? Good for them. Maybe the world they grow up to shape will be a kinder and saner place.


* I have a whole other rant about the equation between not driving and immaturity in the popular media. Someday I’l get around to posting it.

** One wonders if either of the Buchholzes has attempted to find a job lately. Because you know what happens when you look for work in an economic downturn? You get rejected over and over and over, and sometimes you’re told that there were hundreds of other applicants for the job you applied for. And you can choose to believe that your success is entirely owing to your efforts, but the flip side of that is believing that your failures are also entirely owing to you. (I speak from personal experience when I say that that’s the readiest and easiest way to fall into a pit of despair.) Or you can choose to preserve your sanity, and acknowledge that when you’re competing with a vast pool of other equally talented and qualified applicants, the selection process can be somewhat arbitrary. (Academic job-searchers have known this for decades, but now the rest of the workforce is catching up.) And the Buchholzes are surprised that people take the latter view? Good grief.

2 Responses to “On mobility and the non-interchangeability of places: a rant”

  1. Mike says:

    I’m largely in agreement — place *is* important, and there were several geographic regions where I simply did not want to look for a job this year — but at the same time, there’s something to be said for movement. My time in Afghanistan put a bug in me, a desire to go to new places, that I don’t think will fade away — and I’ve been pretty mobile for most of my adult life. Home is in Maryland, and I’ve gone from Savannah to Pittsburgh to Western Massachusetts to New York — and I recently accepted what I cannot call anything other than a dream job all the way across the country, in Pullman. I’m going to miss my family a lot, but there’s something to be said for the exhilaration of adapting to that non-interchangeability, too.

  2. Amanda says:

    Yes. And people do vary a lot, both from person to person and across the course of one person’s life, as to how much variety and change of place they want in their lives. (Sometimes one enjoys all the changes of place at first, but after a while one just starts to get tired.) I’ve been bitten by the travel bug myself lately, but mostly what I want at this point is to be settled in a place that feels right, and to take periodic trips but to always be able to return there.

    And congratulations and hooray for your dream job! I hope the place turns out to be just as congenial as the job does!