When will we stop pushing our young to leave their hometowns?
“You’ll go far,” a well-intentioned high school English teacher once told me. Wouldn’t he be disappointed to learn that I am still living a meager fifteen miles from my alma mater? No doubt he would protest that he was using the word “far” not as a measure of distance, but of achievement. But I am not so sure. As localist author Bill Kauffman has noted countless times, in America to achieve is to leave. And one’s success is often measured by the distance one travels from home. For young Midwesterners that often means lighting out for one of the big cities on the coasts.
And that is only the beginning of our hypermobility. Americans, on average, move every four years, whereas staid Europeans relocate on average twice in their adult lives. All this transience cannot be good for society. Try building ties, friendships, and deep connections when you know not whether you are coming or going. When you settle down in a community for the long haul, you are more likely to invest in that place. You attend neighborhood association meetings. You join garden clubs, the PTA, your church choir. It takes dedicated, longtime residents to create lasting institutions like museums and cultural centers. “The longer people stay in their homes and communities, the more they identify with those places, and the greater their commitment to helping local businesses and institutions thrive,” says urban expert Joel Kotkin.
The American lust for movement has its proponents. Those who favor rootlessness (oikophobes or home-haters, in philosopher Roger Scruton’s phrase) like to say that America was founded on the idea of movement, since many of our ancestors left their homes and families to settle here. And, once here, many kept right on tramping west as the country grew.
True enough, but isn’t the Great American Dream largely one of oikophilia? And isn’t a home something more than a house you inhabit briefly before relocating to the next city? What about family, roots, and community? Don’t they play a role in the American Dream as well?
You wouldn’t know it from the way we encourage our best and brightest to “go far.” It is no wonder smart small-town kids can’t wait to run off to college and begin their lives of vagabondage, when parents, principals. and teachers — especially here in the Midwest — actively encourage this, much to our own detriment and that of our towns.
SIMILAR TO THE mobile “achievers” are the “relos,” the rootless professional class, who follow the money from suburb to suburb (“relovilles”) and put ego, career, and money before the Ties that Bind. These are not the laid-off blue-collars whose factories shut down and they have no choice but to set out for the next boom town. These are executive gypsies required to relocate every few years to remain on the upward career track. Peter Kilborn, author of Next Stop, Reloville, estimated the total relo population at around four million in 2007.
Kilborn’s book made me think of a forty-something friend of mine who recently sold his small company for more bread than I could blow in a lifetime. Instead of enjoying the fruits of his success with an early retirement amid his family and friends, he — and by extension, his wife and young daughter — took another job hundreds of miles away in Dallas.
If it is easy to move away, it is considerably harder to come back. Returning home is regarded by many as a kind of defeat. When the always homesick Bill Kauffman decided to move back to his hometown of Batavia, New York, some years ago, the locals were saddened and somewhat embarrassed for him. Poor guy couldn’t make it in the real world.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in all this is the effect of all this rootlessness on parents and grandparents. I am always a bit saddened by the slight of old couples schlepping through airports on their way to Orlando or Denver or Dallas to visit their grandchildren or to attend this or that graduation or wedding or birthday party. Such is the price we pay for encouraging our children to be successful somewhere else.
My own son will go away to college in the fall. Every parent wants to see his child be successful. And I am no different. I just hope he doesn’t take it the wrong way when I say I hope he doesn’t go too far.
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