The Nation's Pulse

Rootless in America

Why our opposition to hiring locally?

By 9.7.12

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It was a fine send-off. After 30 years, our friend Marian was retiring from the marketing department of a major university. Like a lot of people in top jobs, Marian was an outsider. She was brought in because in a metropolitan area of three million people university officials allegedly couldn't find one local person qualified to do her job. And it wasn't like they were hiring a chief nuclear engineer. But then maybe all our local marketing directors had moved elsewhere too.

I would think there'd be advantages to hiring locally. Local professionals know a city, its people, its history and traditions intimately. Locals often have a stake in their communities in a way outsiders -- who may be only putting in time till their next move -- do not. They are more likely to be involved in local organizations -- not as networking opportunities -- but because they are genuinely invested in their communities and want to see them thrive. And locals are likely to stay longer in a position. Besides, you help your homegrown economy by giving a local resident a job. Hiring locally, however, is often at the bottom of the list of priorities of any hiring board, if at all. Probably because the board is made up of transplants, too. (Hard to imagine now that all our large hometown corporations -- Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto, McDonald Douglas (now Boeing), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- were founded and made successful by smart local boys. The idea that smart local men or women could run them today is deemed absurd.)

Not long ago I got into a painful conversation with a New York transplant who told me how provincial St. Louis was, how we needed more outsiders in positions of leadership, fresh thinkers who could bring in new ideas and different perspectives. I replied that I couldn't disagree more. "The reason all our cities seem the same, seem so bland and generic, is because we have destroyed what made them unique, our local culture and our local traditions," I said. "The fact is all the people running our local businesses, schools, and churches are rootless, job-hopping outsiders from Nowheresville."

He said he'd never thought of it that way. I wasn't surprised.

THE DAY AFTER she retired, Marian put her house on the market. After three decades of living among us she is moving away. Or maybe I should say that despite living here for three decades she never did put down roots. To her, St. Louis was simply a way station between her last job and retirement. As is so often the case in Generic America, roots are considered a hindrance to upward mobility, and upward mobility is all that matters. Not family, not home, not being rooted in a community where one has something at stake.

Marian was born in rural southern Indiana. A hundred years ago, she would have been a farmer or the local school marm. Today, she was a marketing specialist and, as such, just another replaceable cog in a large, complex machine that will continue to operate just fine without her. As a farmer, a wife, a mother, and a valuable member of a small rural community, she would have been irreplaceable.

Marian still owns the family farm in southern Indiana, though she seldom visits. And yet she holds onto it out of some profound familial instinct she cannot quite explain, but is doubtless related to that same longing for land and place that brought her ancestors to America 200 years ago. Rather than return to the farm, she intends to move to Arizona where her daughter and son-in-law live. They have been in Arizona less than a year, and have yet to sell their previous home in North Carolina. Now there is talk that her son-in-law may be transferred to California in a year or two. If so, Marian will likely follow them there.

There was a profound sadness to Marian's retirement party that wasn't entirely occasioned by her imminent departure. I think it was that Marion's life serves a prime example of how deracinated all of us have become, and in what low esteem we hold such elemental virtues as home, family, and place. There was a time when being transient, unconnected, rootless, and uncommitted were considered vices, not virtues. When did everything become upside down?

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.