Dont Worry, Honey, Youll Make New Friends

Inside the new class of serial relocators.

I t may not be the best time to bring this up, just when were all hoping no other sector of the economy proves to be a house of cards, but, well … we may have another problem with American capitalism. It may be slowly eating away at the traditional concepts of community, place, and the extended family.

Americans, we know, are an adventurous and mobile people. We like to push frontiersmove to the Big City, or Go West. But this mythology, at least in my understanding, has usually involved one, maybe two big moves. You went, you tried to make it, and eventually you settled somewhere. The class of people who kept movingmilitary, government, employees of a few major companieswas small.

Today, this (completely reasonable) limitation on mobility is fading: more and more Americans are jumping from job to job and state to state, moving their families at the drop of a hundred thousand dimes. They call themselves Relos, short for relocators, and in a new book called Next Stop: Reloville, former New York Times reporter Peter Kilborn says that they matter, a lot. Kilborn happened upon Relo culture a few years back, while working on that massive series about class we all read part of. He cant give us a precise figure, but he estimates that the expansion of the American economy, and trade in particular, has increased the number of serial relocators from a few hundred thousand thirty years ago to around ten million today. (He draws these numbers from stats from the Census Bureau, moving companies, and the Worldwide Employee Relocation Council, the trade group for corporate relocation managers.) Whatever their numbers, he says, the demographics of Relos give them a disproportionately large social influence.

Kilborn doesnt intend his book as a warninghe means it as a thoughtful exploration of an important phenomenon. And it is. We meet a lot of people in the Relo world and see things from a lot of different perspectives. Some of them are positive. I dont care. I still took it as bad news.

Relos are mostly white, graduates of state universities and sometimes graduate business schools, and largely Republican (though not as overwhelmingly in 2008 as in previous elections). They range from middle to upper middle to upper class, and the way they get themselves to their preferred portion of that range is by moving. Sometimes this is because they get promoted within their company: UPS, for instance, moves 1,200 to 1,300 of its 30,000 managers every year. “Relocation is just a tool of our culture,” the companys PR man tells Kilborn. Sometimes they move because they get a better offer from a new employer in a different place.

Whatever the impetus, the moves are regarded as minor adjustments, inconveniences. Employers dont think twice about asking people to move because, in many cases, the bosses have moved multiple times themselves; some companies even cover the cost of the move, and will go so far as to purchase the house being left behind, to speed up the process. The Relo workforce, meanwhile, has accepted their employers message. “Not moving suppresses your wages and career potential in todays global business environment,” one sales analyst tells Kilborn. Relocation has become standard, normal. In fact, a whole cottage industry of specialized real estate agents and “relocation counselors” has emerged. (Most relocation management firms are less than twenty years old.) Theyll rent furniture for you and ship your dog.

Of course, no relocation counselorusually an “empathetic, college-educated woman,” Kilborn writesis going to be good enough to make a move like this gravy for everyone. The classic victims of family moves are kids, and though Kilborn throws in a couple of anecdotes about an “adventurous minority” of children who thrive jumping from place to place, we also see kids saying “I hate you” and running to their rooms to call their friends. Nor do these troubles always pass. “Frequent relocation among children,” Kilborn quotes an AMA study, is “associated with higher rates of all measures of child dysfunction.” Neighborhoods where Relos live are low-crime areas, but they tend to have teenage vandalism and drug use. (I also found myself wondering what effect frequent relocation has on a kids identity. These kids arent from anywhere.)

Then you have the consequences of the move for the spouse whos not taking a new jobusually the wife. Kilborn spends a chapter with Sara Carroll, whose husband, Dave, works in finance for a cell phone company. The couple moved from Seattle to Roswell, Georgia, and eventually to Maryland. In Seattle, Sara had been a civil engineer, and loved it. But, like many Relo wives, she put her career on the shelf when she moved, and spent her days strapped in her minivanshe couldnt travel on foot because the sidewalk stopped at the gate to her subdivision, and she pushed a stroller. Nor could she really make the place her home: the hardest thing for “trailing spouses,” Kilborn writes, might be the “dearth of intimate friendships.” He quotes an executive of a relocation firm: Relos, she says, “learn how not to get too close so that when a relationship ends, as their experience tells them it will, it does not hurt them too much.” They might make friends, maybe even with families in a similar situation. But its not a close bond, because everyones moving on.
E ven more depressing than the Desperate Housewives parts of Kilborns book are the extended-family sections. A lot of people leave home, of courseas the economy changes and different places become industry centers, its inevitable. But some of them can at least move within a
regionand if not, if they can afford it, they can have their parents move to them. When this happens in Relo families, Kilborn calls the older movers “collateral Relos”: “The parents give up their ties to a town to join their kids.” But theres a big risk: Relos keep moving. And eventually, their parents become too feeble to move with them. They can end up in an assisted-living facility, Kilborn writes, “where they know not a soul. It is a risk that collateral Relos are willing to run as an alternative to the loneliness of rarely seeing children and grandchildren, thousands of miles away, who cant interrupt hectic lives to visit them.”

I guess. Ive been thinking a lot lately about how near to my parents is near enough. Currently, Im about two hours away, and I see them fairly regularly. But I dont have kids yet, and when I do, Ill want to see them moremy grandparents were a big part of my life growing up, and a big help to my parents. Its a good set-up, I think. Everyones family is different, of course, and I dont want to judge anyone elses choices on this kind of thing. But as a growing norm, the Relo way seems sad to me. This quote from Bradd Shore, an anthropologist at Emory, practically made me want to move into my parents basement: “The American family lasts only a generation and a half.”
T here are broader effects, macro consequences of the Relo lifestyle. The “Reloville” of Kilborns title is not imaginary. It describes places like Alpharetta, Georgia, and Plano, Texas. Many Relovilles seem to be in the South and the West. Theyre near airports and transport hubs, usually well away from city centers. Kilborn makes them sound like suburbs on steroids: gated subdivisions with big houses and well-tended yards. Very vanilla, very homogeneous.

Of course, not everyone who lives in these places is a Relo. But Relos, Kilborn says, “shape and define communities. They exert what economists call a multiplier effect on their local economies. By buying and selling homes every three or four years Relos generate three or four times more business than people who move to a town to stay.”

There are reasons Relos buy the homes they do. Homogeneity, for instance, gives them something familiar. “By buying new homes similar to those they leave, Relos concoct illusions of stability.” They prefer for these houses to be new constructions, and avoid certain design elements like synthetic stucco (which is susceptible to water damage), because they know they may be reselling. Its as if a whole population got together and agreed to live in identical homes, so they could swap more easily. (Kilborn doesnt say much about what the housing crash has done to this arrangement, but he suggests its not a lot, because the Relo class is so well off. I guess well see.)

Now, if you dont like the look of these neighborhoods, thats a matter of taste. But the fact that Relos know theyll be relocating also has ramifications for their community engagement: they dont really do it. At church, one pastor tells Kilborn, “nobody knows anybody.” And it can be especially hard for a community to developby, say, taking on a big public works projectwhen no one is really committed to staying there.

Kilborn extrapolates further: because home values are so important to Relos, he says, home values drive public policy. He gives a bunch of examples of the consequences of this, although a lot of them end up sounding like common suburban (and even American) traits: the exclusion of mixed-income and high-density housing; the lack of walkable downtowns; segregation by income. It strikes me as a stretch to blame Relos for the isolation of poverty in the United States.

Still, the overall picture of these Relovilles isnt pretty. And yet, like I said, Kilborn doesnt really treat his subject as a problem that needs fixing. He details the negatives, yes. But he also shows us a lot of affluence and some career satisfaction, and in the end he comes around to the conclusion that this is just the reality of the global economy. He introduces us to a smart kid from the sticks who goes into computer science, and needs to leave home. “A job in the twenty-first-century global economy might displace the importance of place,” he decides. A hard reality, but reality nonetheless.

When Kilborn talks to Relos about their choices, plenty sound unhappybe it with traffic, the logistics of moving, the shallow friendships. Some even ask some fundamental questions, like, “How much is enough?”

“How comfortable is comfortable?” one Relo couple asks each other. “Is this fine, or is there more somewhere else and once you got there, would you say, Is there somewhere else thats even finer?”

Is it impossible that Relos could start answering these questions differently? Couldnt they decide the “finer” place is just someplace you stay and build a life in?

Of course, some moves are necessary. The farm kid needs to leave home if he wants to be a computer scientist. But all these moves, over and over up the food chain? I see a couple of alternatives:

1) Say no. Granted, this isnt always an option. Sometimes the choice may be between moving and losing a job, and certainly there are situations where you dont want to take that risk. But a couple of UPS employees, for example, tell Kilborn, “If you say no now, there are no bad consequences.” Sometimes its just a question of how much money you think you need. Maybe, for some of these folks, its not as much as they thought.

2) Negotiate. In some cases here, were talking about people who are being offered big salaries and generous relocation packages (for executives, $70,000 for moving expenses is common, Kilborn says). Companies have a lot of leverage. Is your employer sure you cant manage inventory replenishment remotely? That you need to move to Colorado to write that computer program? How about he keeps that seventy grand for now and flies you out every couple weeks?

Maybe this is presumptuous of me. Certainly we all have ambitions; frequent relocation could be right for some people. And in todays economy, people are understandably less inclined to test their employers limits. But I just find the normalcy of Relo culture, and the readiness with which its been accepted, disquieting. Can it be long before Sean Hannity is deriding as a lazy socialist anyone who wont rip his daughter out of her high school just before senior year? We have to be wary of how widely this lifestyle catches on, lest it be expected of more of us. I, for one, want nothing to do with it.

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