My two grandfathers had very different lives. Grandpa Henley was rooted in place as a firefighter with deep connections to his community in Amarillo, Texas. Papa Ladd was transient, moving like the wind in search of work. For him, Amarillo was a kind of moon around which he orbited but seldom landed. Neither was wealthy, but Grandpa Henley lived a comfortable life while Papa Ladd was consistently poor.
Grandpa Henley lived in the same home almost his entire adult life. He had relocated from Arkansas when he was young, but once he established himself he stayed put, dying of old age in the house he purchased when his children were small. There were too many people at his funeral to fit in the church. I have no idea how many places Papa Ladd lived before finally passing in a rented house in Oklahoma that he shared with a woman I had never known. There was no one to collect his remains but my uncles. Success and connectedness once depended on being rooted to a place. Transience was a product and engine of poverty.
Like my less prosperous grandfather, my family are transients. We live more than a thousand miles from my hometown, moving homes every few years. I can’t establish a reliable count of my former addresses, but my life outcomes reflect a major cultural shift. My most successful peers are even more mobile than I am, with even fewer ties to community and place. My least successful peers have the strongest ties to community and the fewest house moves. Global capitalism and the rise of an information economy have inverted the calculus of life, turning local ties into an expensive luxury with serious life consequences.
Can a democracy organized around the mediating influence of social capital survive the rise of transience? Can this system function when so few of its brightest, most talented and successful people can name a single local politician? Perhaps, but across the world the results so far don’t look promising.
Americans still use the word “transient” as a euphemism for homelessness. It’s most often encountered in crime stories or tales of desperate poverty. We celebrate the adventurousness of our pioneers, but only in the distant past, after the realities of their circumstances have faded. Nobody packed their meagre belongings into a wagon and set out for Oregon because they’d been wildly successful in Cleveland. Across our history there’s been no success quite as powerful as finding a place for oneself at home. The signature story of America’s transients has been The Grapes of Wrath. Until now.
Thanks to a rapid transformation of the global economy, success is now virtually inseparable from transience. Permitting one’s attachments to a place, especially a place outside one of the country’s top ten major metros, to limit one’s career ambitions, is a painfully expensive compromise. And remaining tied to a small town or rural area is economic self-sabotage. Investing in a community is a luxury, to be cast aside when opportunity beckons. Economic rewards from transience are spectacular, while rootedness now brings devastating opportunity costs.
America’s most elite colleges, the ones which draw students from the broadest national base, now funnel the majority of their graduates into our five biggest coastal cities and Chicago.
Where my grandparents sought to put down roots at the first available moment, the most successful members of our younger generations remain more or less permanently on the wing. They start their careers living downtown. They may settle in a suburb just long enough for their kids to enjoy an education, moving two or three times locally as their income rises. Throughout that time they might never vote in a city election or know the name of their mayor while voting in every national race. When their kids are done with school, they’re back downtown in one city or another, while spending much of their free time in travel. At the end of their lives they might not remember the names of more than two or three of their former neighbors.
A disconnect has developed between the demands of our politics and the demands of our economy. Our political system still depends on the active, personal engagement of talented people with deep ties to local communities. As described in The Politics of Crazy, these networks of local participation have always been the filter limiting the reach of the corrupt, the fanatical and the lunatics. Meanwhile, our economy now hands out its most lucrative rewards to those who live like hummingbirds, punishing those who cultivate local connections.
Transience brings economic rewards that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago. At the same time, it is robbing our political system of the high quality local engagement that makes our democracy work. Barely one percent of Americans are politically active. Apart from a few dedicated enthusiasts, the only competent people left participating in local government are those with material interests, like realtors and real estate developers, along with a few noisy cranks. Sustain this condition long enough and you end up with a political system dominated at all levels by a coalition between hustlers and lunatics.
What happens to the people left behind in America’s old hometowns? Apart from a few smaller towns that benefit from state capitals or universities, quality of life in our little Mayberrys has deteriorated.
We’ve passed a threshold in the declining value of land that started with the Industrial Revolution. Traditionally, rural land supported three main economic pursuits, agriculture, resource extraction and energy production. Small towns scattered across the country provided services for rural residents and sites for small manufacturing. There’s little remaining need for labor in any of these processes. We’ve probably already reached “Peak Farmland,” the point beyond which our need for agricultural land goes into permanent decline. Absent a dense network of government supports that would make a Soviet smile, there would be virtually no family farming in this country today.
In the world’s advanced economies, almost all of the serious money now comes from knowledge industries. Those industries yield higher returns by concentrating near each other. Even the energy industry, the last bastion of small-town support, is on its way to a low-labor, knowledge-driven future with solar beginning to outperform fossil fuels even without price supports. Knowledge industries crave concentration and have little need for land.
Across the longest economic boom in our history, rural poverty has grown to match urban levels, with upward mobility for rural residents moving into steep decline. Whites in particular who remained in hometowns outside the country’s major cities aren’t just making less money, they are dying off at an accelerating rate. In a reversal of course we haven’t seen in modern times, mortality rates are actually increasing and lifespans shrinking for aging rural whites. All the stereotypes we once attached to “the ghetto” now more accurately apply to our bucolic countryside and our charming old hometowns.
Can anything revive the fortunes of rural areas and provide some balance against the culture of transience? The most promising solutions are being fought most bitterly by the those who would benefit the most. Universal health care and a universal basic income would be a lifeline for areas passed over by the knowledge economy. That combo would give new purpose to places that offer inexpensive housing and a chance to build community far from the demands on America’s bustling big cities.
Increased immigration would add vitality to otherwise dying, shrinking communities. We’re not talking about the competition for high-skilled, knowledge economy workers who would be drawn into the already booming cities, but the desperate, determined people looking to build life and community in a safe place. They could bring energy, innovation and much-needed tax revenue to places left behind while strengthening community bonds.
And to keep the whole machine healthy, we need to take some very simple steps to limit the power of those local cartels developing between hustlers and cranks. In urban areas ostensibly benefiting from the culture of transience, these cartels have morphed into blood-sucking political vampires. Exploiting the low-political activism of their transient population, these political cartels have worked to bleed the new migrants with exploitative zoning and development rules. These existing property owners become rentiers, parasites siphoning wealth from the newcomers while producing negative value. San Francisco is leading the world in creating new wealth, while its exploitative local politics has produced an artificial housing crisis and a stunning boom in homelessness.
Despite the rewards of transience, overall, fewer Americans are moving than ever. Millions more Americans would have relocated to America’s economic boomtowns but for the interference of their rentiers. The knock-on effects of preferential zoning in places in San Francisco and Boston are felt by families who remain stuck in Dayton or St Louis, unable to raise enough capital to pay the tolls imposed by local trolls in major centers.
Preserving democracy in an age of transience probably means cutting some of our losses on its most expensive, least successful institutions. Measures being considered in places like California and Massachusetts that would limit the power of local governments are probably just the beginning of what we need. Tokyo has a population roughly the size of California, with housing and transit costs running at a fraction of what Bay Area residents face. Our housing costs are an artificial problem created by a broken political system.
And finally, if democracy will survive at all in an environment that rewards a consumer rather than a citizen lifestyle, our system must evolve. We must all recognize the direct, material costs of our complacency. Those still interested in citizenship must learn to leverage the tools of a transient culture to replicate social capital in social media. We don’t know how to do this yet, as our experience so far in social media demonstrates. But if we want to keep a democracy we will have to learn.
Both of my grandfathers would have viewed my rootless, transient lifestyle with horror, as a recipe for failure. The demands of success have changed. Our culture and politics must adapt to these evolving demands. Much of what we must do now to be successful financially leaves us vulnerable politically. The rise of transience has bred political instability which probably won’t destroy that mobile lifestyle, but could spell the end of democracy. We should find a way to preserve both while we still can.
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.
“Let me tell you a story about these slaves.”
How about no?
You posit these transience tech jobs to be “fun, exciting, and wildly rewarding”. People often say that about game development, but the culture among plenty of the companies at the top, and even at some companies developing mid-level titles, is wildly abusive.
“I know some people who just refused to work weekends, and then we missed a deadline because their part of the package wasn’t completed, and they were fired,”
“Perhaps most alarming, it’s a story about a studio in crisis. Dozens of developers, many of them decade-long veterans, have left BioWare over the past two years. Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. ‘People were so angry and sad all the time,’ they said. Said another: ‘Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.'”
“I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem,” said a third former BioWare developer in an email. “A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.”
“I went to a party with some members of one of the studios mentioned above after I no longer worked there, and I met one of their young new hires. We chatted a bit and I remember vividly the look in his eyes when he said, and I quote, ‘I can’t wait for my first death march!’ We have allowed a culture to grow around our work that treats this uncritically as the work of passion and energy and excitement when really it’s just people destroying themselves and their families, whether it’s mandated, implied via peer pressure, or entirely voluntary.”
“Warhammer 40,000 Inquisitor Martyr, a Diablo-like game set in the Warhammer universe, has been delayed from its May release to June 5. The developers Neocore Games have since promised to work “90+ hours per weeks” to make up for the delay.”
“Because of the episodic nature of Telltale’s games, the studio’s development cycle was a constantly turning wheel. As soon as one episode wrapped, it was on to the next one, over and over with no end in sight. ‘Everything [was] always on fire,’ one source with direct knowledge of the company says. ‘You never [got] a break.'”
My main exposure to the culture of crunch has been through articles about the Hell of game development. It’s likely that these abuses exist elsewhere in the tech sector, but are much more difficult to find because the products that those people are making aren’t part of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that gets daily coverage.
So yeah, I consider your rosy picture of the tech industry as dangerously misleading and anecdotal. Collective bargaining and getting regulations on the book to push back against tech worker abuse is the way to go.
Seriously? They were stressed out? That’s very sad.
None of these kids has ever worked in one of those facilities with a sign out front that reads [n] Days Since a Lost-Time Accident. My dad nearly died on the job three times. The last time he wasn’t able to walk on his own for six months. Several of my friends fathers died in industrial accidents. Nearly lost a finger myself in a grisly near-miss on an industrial job. Nevermind the people I’ve known who’ve died in the line of service as firefighters or police officers.
People will always complain. It takes a lot of good breaks to land in career where your worst complaint is that you feel stressed out…while working indoors, protected from the weather, not having to dodge heavy machine or avoid falling off of something, while earning enough money to have a secure retirement by your 40’s.
I’m familiar with these complaints, and I have personally complained them. Probably will again. But I’m not impressed with them and I’m damned glad to have them.
I have worked in heavy industry – yes accidents happen – BUT if you have anything like a decent culture they are very very rare
The USA is more than a bit behind on that!
“Seriously? They were stressed out? That’s very sad.”
If by stressed out you mean “Working for such long periods of time that your physical and mental health take a nosedive”, then yes. You can downplay as much as you want with a “Kids these days don’t understand how good they’ve got it” mentality, but that doesn’t change the fact that the culture of crunch takes a serious toll on people, and often leads to the end product being worse.
Anthem, the game where the developers often had to take *doctor-mandated* leave because the crunch to get the game developed over the course of a year and a half which is an insane time frame for an ambitious project like that, turned out to be a disaster of a game rife with bugs and fundamental flaws. The episodic nature of Telltale’s games meant that all the crunch time was spent making their games rather than improving the middling tech they were using to build said games; there was stilted, choppy animation and bugs galore in practically all their titles (as well as a bug that would often erase your save data) because they never got the time to improve their tools. This led to people souring on Telltale’s games over time, which eventually led to the studio’s closing.
People are turning in ludicrous hours because they know their employers will count it against them if they don’t, and can’t afford that because the nature of tech work means that they get treated like expendable chaff by the higher-ups who collect ludicrous compensation ( https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2019/02/13/in-an-industry-of-imagined-corporate-villainy-activision-blizzards-layoffs-seem-uniquely-cruel/ and https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-04/activision-gives-15-million-sweetener-to-new-cfo-dennis-durkin ). This is causing real damage to their mental and physical well-being. And this is all for the sake of creating games that more often than not wind up just as broken and just barely keeping it together as the developers themselves.
But hey, them thar kids don’t know what it’s like to almost lose a finger and should just suck it up, amirite Chris?
You know what? Sounds like your father, his friends, and you who all witnessed deaths or dismemberment in industrial accidents would benefit from a union demanding better working conditions. Also, seems to me, the firefighters and police have exceptionally strong unions.
A union? They had one. It took a portion of their checks, funneled that money into political campaigns, then did nothing for them. Over time, like any large organization, it went through a series of mergers, concentrating more and more decision-making power in fewer and fewer hands, until the senior union leadership, corporate management, and the congressfolk they’d bought had more interests in common than the union leaders had with the workers on the front lines.
I had a chance to join when I was working in an industrial scrap yard. By then, almost no one bothered. In Texas you weren’t required to join the union to hold a job, so it was fading out. Why hand over a chunk of your pay to some bureaucrats you’d never heard of who did nothing for you. That’s what your tax withholding was for.
This isn’t a story about how unions are bad. It’s a reminder that there’s no silver bullet, no single solution to a problem for all time in every set of circumstances. Remaining religiously uncritical of a single organizing tool is a recipe for abuse, a mistake that evolution will punish. What worked in one in environment will not necessarily work in another, or even continue to work over time in its original successful setting.
Workers need a say in the organizations they work for. Unions, especially in the American model, are not necessarily a good way to make that happen.
And as for the “stressed out” bit, I can’t read that without chuckling. Why do people work 70-90 hour weeks on a project? Having done it in a miserable industrial setting, a legal setting, and the environment of a knowledge company, let me say first that it happens everywhere. I did it in a knowledge company with a big fat smile on my face because as a shareholder I owned the outcome. And there was a narrow window in which to reap the best outcome.
It’s a little bit like those shows where people go out on salmon or crab boats, working twenty hour days, because they only have a short time to make their money. As evidenced by the hundreds of hours of content posted here over the years, those crunch conditions don’t exist all the time, but honestly it’s never occurred to me to complain when the crunch comes (and it’s ramping up again right now). Unlike the drudgery of enduring double shifts out in the sun, or the skull-grinding contentiousness of doing it in a law firm, this is exciting and kind-of fun. I don’t ever see the intensity I slogged through earlier in my career, as I’m old and not on the front lines anymore, but the rewards were worth it.
When employers try to abuse their workers in this business, generally the workers just leave. I can attest to this. In all of these businesses, the most crucial element of success is recruiting and retaining talent. Yes, you need to inspire them to stay focused during difficult times, but in a business with deep, negative unemployment, you have to build an entire infrastructure devoted to listening to them, otherwise you get a big nasty surprise of attrition in the midst of a critical project. Someone is always trying to recruit your employees, something I never witnessed in an industrial setting.
It can be tough sometimes, but tough is relative. Compared to what people experience in other lines of work, the “stress” of life in this business is downright laughable.
I agree with your observations, but disagree with the conclusions you draw from them. A few points:
1) To play the devil’s advocate: Slavery is not defined by a certain income level. It’s defined by the inability to control one’s own economic destiny. And transience is still a sign of that inability. The fact that tech workers make far more than your grandfather doesn’t discount the tremendous amount of control that knowledge workers have given up. A middle class union assembly worker in Cleveland Ohio has workers’ rights, pension benefits, job security, health care, etc. far in excess of all but the most elite tech workers in places like SF. The fact that the tech worker happens to make more money (which, I agree, is not an insignificant benefit of giving up so much control over their economic lives) doesn’t change the fact that slavery is not defined by income levels.
Calling tech workers slaves is perhaps going too far. But they face economic insecurity unthinkable to middle class workers of a generation ago. When the next recession comes, let’s see how much of SF is hollowed out. It happens with every tech boom/bust cycle. You just need to see how much angst Electronic Arts (the game publisher) caused when they laid off hundreds of tech workers despite announcing record profits last year.
2) I don’t disagree that companies find it very beneficial to view their employees as disposable assets that can be moved across the country on a whim. The question is, do people actually *enjoy* this transience? I’d argue not. Most people would love to put down roots in a single city, especially once they get married and have kids. The fact that their bargaining power has eroded vis-a-vis their companies, even in “white collar”, well-paid fields, just shows how much closer they are to the “transients” of older years in their ability to shape their lives the way they’d like, rather than the way their company demands.
An interesting way to see this is with corporate relocations. The #1 indicator of where a company will relocate is wherever the CEO has a house. You would think that a CEO, charged with the fiduciary duty of finding the best location for the corporate HQ, and safe in the knowledge that wherever the HQ is located, he will do fine, would choose based on what’s best for the company. And yet, as he may exhort his workers to move for the company, when push comes to shove, he’ll force the company to move for himself. ConAgra relocated to Chicago because their CEO lived in the suburbs and hated working in Nebraska. Jeff Bezos, after a nationwide search to find a larger city with lower cost of living than Seattle, chose a city (DC) with neither benefit. He did, however, already have a house there, and owned the local newspaper. Funny how that works when you actually have the power to dictate terms to the company and not the other way around…
3) Apropos to the above, as Dinsdale notes, moving is not as common as you paint it to be. Yes, after college people make one big move to one of the big cities. And until they’re married and have kids, maybe they’ll move again. But most of the times, especially in a good economy like this, people would rather change jobs than change locations. If people were so willing to move, Google / FB / Apple would have relocated hundreds of thousands of people out of SF. But they know that the minute they announce forced relocations, they’ll lose their prized employees. So instead, they’re taking the more gradual approach of focusing future job growth in other cities, understanding that people who’ve already moved to SF are unlikely to move out of it (and most who are willing to move out are people who have ties to other cities, e.g. people moving back to their hometowns).
I guess my argument, at the end of the day, is that transience still reflects lack of control over one’s economic security. It’s just that, thanks to policies since the 70s to destroy workers’ rights, that lack of control now spreads to ostensibly upper middle class Americans.
But with that said, I agree with everything you say over how that transience (whether it’s desired or forced) is affecting local politics and communities. But perhaps the solution is to pushback against that transience, rather than accept it as an inevitability and treat the effects?
Let me tell you a story about these slaves.
One of our teams out here in the Midwest took a customer to HQ in San Francisco for a product briefing. One of the presenters was a product specialist, let’s call him Joe. In his introduction to this group of middle and senior execs from our customer, Joe gave a little background on his enthusiasm for our product. He mentioned that he’d come out of retirement to work to here because the technology was so cool and the opportunity was too compelling to pass up.
Joe looks about 35.
The customer organization is a utility in Pennsylvania. They heard nothing Joe said after he mentioned coming out of retirement. No one on our side at HQ even noticed. It wasn’t interesting.
Joe isn’t a CEO or a founder. He’s just some tech guy. He’s good at his job, but not good at his job the way a professional athlete or a famous pop singer is good at their job. He didn’t even hit the Silicon Valley lottery, or he’d be working in a venture capital firm or hedge fund instead of for us. Chances are he hit one of those 1 out of 10 shots at landing a single 3-6mil payout on a startup and now he’s a free agent, but having an income still helps at the margins and keeps your mind busy.
He’s far lower on the corporate hierarchy than those starchy characters in ties he was addressing. And his story isn’t unusual among these “slaves” especially in CA, NY and Boston. Joe is riding the jet stream of transience in the epicenter of new wealth generation. If he was doing what he does in Columbus or even Houston, he’d be plodding along at low-six figures struggling to build a nest egg and worrying about future college costs.
The customer was really bothered by that comment. Delivered in the modern-Versailles setting of that office, it probably stung.
These “transience class” jobs are demanding, but they’re also fun, exciting, and wildly rewarding. Though some technical knowledge helps you get in the door, most of these positions are far less technically and intellectually demanding than you’d expect. For every engineering whiz, you need ten, twenty or thirty other people from sales reps to marketing pros, most of whom have no more talent or intellect than people working in other fields, in other places, for far less money.
And when you’re tired of it you can generally just quit and do whatever you want, but very few people truly tire of it. They sometimes think they’re tired of it, then they drop out, then they’re back again in a year because they need that rush.
Do people in these businesses people complain? People always complain. I certainly do. You’re not really going to respond to this phenomenon with talk about workers rights, are you? Notice how that wildfire of labor organization has swept the tech business? If you want to sit in the same office for twenty years, if you want to know today where you’ll be working and what you’ll be doing all day on a given day in 2029, take a job with the phone company. Or work for that utility company in PA. I don’t think very many of your transience class workers will jump at the chance to break their chains.
Here’s the problem with the “bargaining power” delivered by labor unions in the context of knowledge economy jobs. All a labor union does is give me one more bureaucracy I have to navigate to get ahead. I don’t want an elected union bureaucrat negotiating for me, and I won’t cooperate with efforts to commoditize my own value in this market. Neither will the rest of my peers. Labor unions legislate mediocrity, replacing a dynamic, competitive environment with a set of rules reduced to a contract. In order to achieve this goal, they transfer power from workers to labor leaders. For people with very little economic leverage, this transfer of power is vital, a lifeline that concentrates their negotiating heft. For people who could take this job or leave it, it makes no sense at all.
Having to leave home can be painful. It was for me, and to a certain extent still is. It is not, however, unreasonable price to pay to join the global economy. And even if it were a steep price, it wouldn’t matter. There isn’t a law you could pass that would make it less economically advantageous to group these knowledge businesses together. Trying to do so would just result in them finding a more favorable environment in which to regroup. Adapting to this new dynamic will take some creativity, and I think a basic income is probably a better response than trying to convert Omaha into a tech center, or trying to persuade tech workers to lose their chains and join a union.
Chris, if you want to drink the koolaid about “unions are bad”, and working 70 hours a weeks is cool, there is really not much to talk about. Your world view is just simply wrong.
Unions evolved because of need. They served a tremendously good purpose in identifying and pushing improvements for workers – safety, healthcare, vacation, 40-hour work week, overtime, collective bargaining, workmen’s comp, etc. They have been through some bad times too for which they deserve to be criticized. But, on balance, unions have helped working men and women – from teachers to nurses to machinists, fire, police, factory workers and more. They are imperfect and probably too bureaucratic, and there have been aubusive leaders at every level, but, on balance, I believe people still need unions in America. In fact, I believe they are desperately needed today for obvious reasons. What other group or entity would represent working class people if unions didn’t? Members of Congress? Management? I don’t think so. People in upper tiers of employment have the financial independence, intelligence and communication skills to negotiate directly whereas this is rare for a working person in the fields mentioned.
Hard physical labor (while it can be more dangerous in poorly run industries with inadequate oversight) is just a different form of job challenge. Stress is a real problem in the workplace as people grapple with a myriad of demands. Look at America’s opioid epidemic, our incredibly high levels of suicide, incarceration, education costs and personal bankruptcy rates. These are signs of a very dysfunctional society. America is in a very dark place right now.
You mention measures being considered in California. Which ones do you think look the most promising?
This is the one that drew my attention because it has Palo Alto’s leadership up in arms:
Here’s the bill itself:
If this passes then I may need to eat some of my criticisms of California’s limousine liberals. And it continues to advance, gaining some support along the way.
Hillary Clinton leads. She is standing up for principle and for country at great personal risk (trump and GOP continue to threaten her with more investigation of ‘missing ‘emails). It’s stunning in its directness.
Yes, it’s very clear writing. And a reminder of the breath of her experience.
I would suggest that job transience is not as bad as you suggest, especially in the tech sector. As you have accurately stated, there are not a lot of tech “zones”. Job transience within a physical sector is definitely an issue, but I don’t think people have to physically move nearly as much as you state. Highly capable people simply move to another job inside the same zip code.
The key destroyer of democracy is that the internet has not brought people together, but further isolated them into demographic and economic towers of similar mindsets. Imagine a world without Twitter and Facebook, or any of the other social media outlets that propagate disinformation and hate. The Internet has given the worst of the species a platform that they never had before when all news sources were relatively limited, with each news provider properly vetted by editors and fact-checkers.
No one used to believe the garbage in the tabloids at the checkout counter, but millions believe what brietbart, sinclair, and the tyrant spew out today.
If the Facebook and Twitter servers were blown up tonight, the world would be better place tomorrow.
It’s true, I was less politically active when my jobs took me traveling. But I did vote in every election I was home for, even if my understanding of local issues may have been shallow.
I was corporately ambitious and, perhaps surprisingly, as a liberal arts major, found many opportunities to figure out my work self in various high-tech companies. I enjoyed the challenges. I enjoyed seeing all the major cities and some countries of Asia.
But, I was single and quickly realized that the lives of my friends at home went on, even when I wasn’t in town. They planned activities together and, because they didn’t always know my travel schedule, I may not be invited.
So I wrote postcards on the plane. Postcards to my friends, postcards to my family, postcards to assuage familial guilt, and postcards to keep my friendships going. I like having friends.
Back then, my longest stretch with one company was 4 years. And I was witness to decision-making at all levels in companies, large and small.
The spans grew longer after my last lay-off by a computer company. I was a federal sub-contractor for one and one-half decades. I’ve lived in Houston for almost 3 decades. My house is almost as old as I am.
Those decision makers? Many are very ordinary people in over their heads. (Some are just tall men.)
Their decisions, though, including their definition of ‘success’, can roil their employees’ lives. All the connective technologies we now enjoy seem unable to diminish the need for some employees to spend way too much time on planes. If the CEOs are as bright as they tell us they are, why can’t they change that?
Me, I enjoy meeting the neighborhood cranks who are currently working on the local school district board election. They, too, write postcards, and they are holding candidate forums, and going door to door for their candidates.
Sounds like success is in the making.
To me the issue is the size of cities
The benefits of having a lot of people together will be a diminishing return type of graph while the “costs” of having too many people together will rise faster as the size increases
The problem is that the “benefit” is clear and applies to individual COMPANIES – while the “cost” is less clear and is upon the people and the community
IMHO what you need is a “City Tax” – NOT to bring in money but to encourage the growth of “Optimum” sized cities
What is the “Optimum size” – to be argued over – I would say about one million people
The authors suggest nearness to large cities is economically good for smaller communities.
I would agree – but if instead of ten or twenty HUGE cities you had fifty or a hundred “Big Enough” cities it would spread the benefits over the whole nation
People have always moved when economics or other needs dictate it. My grandfather on dad’s side moved several times during his life in the early part of the twentieth century across states. Mainly for health reasons for one of his daughters. He had been a college professor and at the end of his life was an accountant and a news paper writer.
My other grandfather was a railroad conductor for a railroad company. He moved also as his company needed him to . He passed away before I was born. If he had lived I might well have had the connections and ended up working for his company.
My dad after his father had passed during the Great Depression quit school at age 16 and got a job and kept his mother and siblings from starving to death. No social safety net back then. He enlisted in the Navy during WWII and had an allotment sent to his family to keep them afloat. He made a career of the Navy and spent twenty years on the water. Retired into the recession of the early sixties and went back to sea to support his family.
I hardly knew my dad who married late until I was sixteen as he was always away from home. I ended up in the Utility field and have only moved three times in my life. I did not want a transit lifestyle like dad. Many of my fellow technicians came off working construction or support companies moving all over the world as the job demanded. They wanted a stable home life.
One of the things I have notice is a technician is a technician. If you can learn one you can learn anything technical. Most of us have hobbies that are technical in nature outside the field we earn a living in. And can find work traveling or not. Although you may have to chose an area that offers employment in your field. My experiences are different from yours Mr. Ladd.
I really enjoy this blog and the commentators. Everyone has a different perspective. And none of us see things identical. To quote a lady “We are stronger together”.
those who remain in their communities for long periods of time do so for many reasons. They are vulnerable to economic development encroachment if they live in quasi-urban areas. Under the guise of economic development, the new tax law may force many of these people out. The HUD prom of brilliance has a solution for them, but I don’t think it’s going to help the poor residents as much as it will the developers. They may be forced to become transient but lack the support system to be successful when displaced. Some will benefit but mostly the gains will accrue to those with capital to invest.
Your thesis – transiency (the “good” kind) is more rewarding (i.e., financial and professional advancement) than permanency, neglects the factors of relationships and educational limitations. As you noted, Papa Ladd was highly transient but poor. Was he happy? How many transient (successful) people are at peace with themselves and the sacrifices they and their families make to pursue the American Dream? I “get” that there is a price to be paid for not venturing out of one’s comfort zone but this implies that people have the skills and opportunities to attempt these moves.
Moving is expensive. It is not tax deductible in most instances under new tax rules. My recent move of just 235 miles cost $5000. How many individuals and families can afford this expense on a recurring basis without subsidy from their employer? Will the changes in tax code impact employer and employee decisions?
I guess my real concern from the standpoint of an older person who was not the primary breadwinner but did work, is that success can be defined in many ways. I’m assuming for the purposes of your post that this couples financial and professional advancement. What percentage of America’s population falls into this category? It is absolutely undeniable that being well educated and/or having desirable skills offer the potential for greater mobility. That’s not where America is, for better or worse, depending upon one’s point of view and personal situation.
There is value to experiencing new environments and work situations. If the loss is fewer deep personal relationships, less connectedness to one’s community, that’s the price one pays. In thriving communities, such as The Woodlands, TX where I lived for eighteen years, there is a very mobile population. Yet, I witnessed tremendous commitment to community among people who knew they may have to relocate as they work for major companies and have lived many places throughout their careers. Once people find a place that meets more than financial and professional needs, they dig in. I think that’s a very good thing. There is value in a sense of community, knowing people over many years, becoming invested in one’s community. This, to me, is the rock upon which Democracy thrives but it is not accessible to all people.
Changing workplace tools and demands may actually help Americans who have the requisite skills to remain in place and still succeed financially and professionally. We are definitely not there yet but I am unconvinced that the price one pays to pursue these goals is worth it. It would be an interesting sociological study to track people such as you are profiling to see how the arc of their lives proceeds. I am happy for anyone who is able to make moves that help their families and themselves succeed as long as that success produces happiness and personal contentment. Aging helps sift priorities and as most people move down the road of time, the things most important to them are relationships, financial security, and happiness. Just judging from the deep hostility and personal anger we are witnessing in our country, I’d say success as currently defined is not all it’s cracked up to be.