Thursday, February 10, 2005

American Nomads

In the past, maybe going back a century ago, people did not move around as much as they do now in this country. Of course this simple picture is far from the whole story. The pioneer stories that we used to hear about in social studies aren’t false, but being a pioneer and moving out to the west in the United States was often either done by adventurous young men or families facing economic or social hardship. Immigrants quickly moving to the west at the time probably exaggerated the trend. More often than not, you stayed in the same town nearby your extended family.

I believe the change has been a gradual one, still happening today. Look at the obituaries in your local paper and you’ll see what I mean. So many of those mentioned, besides different stints here or there, spent so much of their life where they were born and grew up. Now compare them to the peers you have now. Today, everyone has been in different places, for college, then for their first job, graduate school, second job etc. There are certainly some real advantages to being able to be different places and experience life with a different perspective, but I wonder whether the advantages are sometimes overblown and if the disadvantages are being ignored.

Technological and societal change has played a large role in changing people’s behavior in this regard. Obviously, innovations in transportation and in communication make it easier and the economic and social cost smaller to move far away from home. Also, the increase education consumption has led to many to take short stints in different locations to better their selves. The job market has also changed significantly and this too has motivated people to move more often and farther away. It is very unlikely for you to work at one company in one location for your entire working life. Even if you are able to stay at one company, changes in their business and promotions will likely take you to different states and towns. There are other smaller forces playing a role here, but these are the largest ones at play.

There are some obvious questions to all of this.

Is this trend really a bad thing?

I would argue there have been significant drawbacks to this trend. Yes, it may be nice to be able to seek out the best opportunities and experience new places and people, but this is often overblown. The new experience thing can add some excitement to one’s life but after awhile any new place you live in becomes mundane and old. There are certain unique cities but most of them have the same stores, the same Olive Gardens, etc. The biggest difference place to place is the weather and with our climate controlled homes and offices even this matters less. Job opportunities are a more reasonable reason to relocate but sometimes the job may not be that much better than the one you have and if it is, is it worth the cost? The cost is the social cost that we incur when we move from place to place. We have less contact with our families and we have less connection to the general community. The majority of couples now have dual-careers making it very difficult if not impossible to handle the care of their children alone. The extended family could help enormously in this regard but when you are so far away from them, this is impossible. This is besides the loss of fulfilling time with your extended family that occurs when you are far away. This occurs just when moving away from where one grew up but being generally nomadic makes maintaining community especially difficult for most people. There’s an investment in time and effort to get started in organizations, clubs, poker nights, etc. that is much more costly for the benefit for a nomadic person. Many people end up thinking what’s the point? I am going to be moving soon anyway.

Is being nomadic really our destiny or do we have choice?
I would say that yes things are pushing us to be this way as I mentioned before, but a lot if it is our own making. We frown upon going to college nearby where we grew up. Popular culture celebrates those who are making their start someplace new, especially if they are doing so in a major city like NYC and DC. We put being just marginally more successful above having successful relationships with our family and on and on…

I do not propose any radical change nor do I intend to judge the difficult choices that everyone has to make. Just maybe it’s something to think about next to you have to make this choice. What exactly is motivating you?

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