Monday, November 9, 2009

November's American Conservative has an interesting article from Peter T. Kilborn on "America's professional gypsies." Kilborn has a new book on the subject, and of course he's talking about the burgeoning class of deracinated young professionals - a topic of much discussion of late. He employs the rather tacky term "Relos" - which I guess is a word people actually use - to describe those who are in a near constant state of flux, relocating to new branches of their multi-national corporations, into new cookie-cutter suburbs, and putting their children into new schools every few years.

Kilborn focuses on the effects this kind of lifestyle has on families and communities. Naturally, it's not good for the children who are forced to fit into completely new places just long enough to be disoriented when their family moves again. According to the experts, these children are more likely to have various emotional/behavioral problems. It's also not good for the communities they live in, which are really non-communities. They tend to live in suburbia, where they don't know their neighbors, don't care about local politics, and they "don't plant trees, they don't plant bushes." The one constant is the job, and everything else is considered second.

In an essay on the exploitation of natural resources but which could just as well be applied to the lifestyle of relocation, Wendell Berry says, "One of the primary results - and one of the primary needs - of industrialism is the separation of people and places and products from their histories. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or of our habitats or of our meals. This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the the one-night stand. 'I had a good time, says the industrial lover, 'but don't ask me my last name.'" Some place might as well be anyplace, because where one happens to live is only incidental to the corporate ladder.

This lifestyle of relocation denies that place matters. But, says Kilborn, place does matter:

Places define people. A place - a town or a neighborhood with a latitude and a longitude, with walls, windows, and doors, seasons and soil - forms our accents and values, our preferences and references, our learning, aspirations and diversions, our senses of belonging and continuity. Roots in a place sustain us in youth and old age.

Like most Americans, Relos value their health, homes, jobs, weekends, and immediate neighbors - at least, that is, while they are among them. They get Christmas cards from the last subdivision, but after a couple of years, the cards stop. Relos don't have accents. Wherever they go, they don't belong. Their kids don't know where they are from. Relos don't know where their funerals will be or who might come.
This reminds me of Annie Dillard's memoir, An American Childhood. She begins not by describing her parents or her birth or her early childhood, but by describing Pittsburgh, the city in which she was born. "When everything else has gone from by brain," she begins, "the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family - when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that."

I wonder what the increasingly globalized industrial economy will leave in the minds of us young Americans who "trade a home in one place for a job anyplace."


claire said...

See, look. I am commenting on your blog.

I was thinking about your post as I went for a walk around my aunt's neighborhood this morning. It is a rare occurrence to see anyone outside, heaven forbid we might have to say hello to one another. I feel like this is a general mentality of the residents in suburbia. It definitely occurs in my home neighborhood.

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