New Normal: The Rootless ProfessionalPublished: July 15, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory
In the new book Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class, author Peter T. Kilborn explores the world of American professionals who move every three or four years for a job. This way of life has surged along with the growth of global business, affecting millions of workers. For many, such periodic relocation is a track to the top of the company hierarchy, and the jobs come with high wages and generous perks. But the moves can also take a toll on families, notes Kilborn, a journalist who worked with Emory University's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) while doing research for his book.
In an interview with Knowledge@Emory, Kilborn discusses the effects of this "new normal" way of life for a significant number of Americans. Largely immune to the economy’s cyclical booms and busts, with incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 and more per year, “Relos” roost in markedly similar, cloistered subdivisions that are stratified by income, price point, and age of home, offering amenities such as private tennis and pool clubs. These reassuringly familiar arrangements, says Kilborn, are essentially “the same neighborhood but a different ZIP Code.” Kilborn exposes the price both families and communities pay when the breadwinner—most often the father—travels frequently for work, leaving a spouse and children alone to fend for themselves in communities where few connections are actually made. After all, the next move is right around the corner—or the globe.
Knowledge@Emory: The growing number of Relos can be seen as an adaptive response to the demands of a global economy, but why does it feel as if Relos also represent another rip in America’s social fabric?
Kilborn: They do, but in the greater Atlanta area, for example, the effect is limited to a small number of communities where Relos make up a sizeable part—arbitrarily, I’d say 20 percent or more—of the population. For Relos, communities are just places to sleep. So they demand little of the community, beyond good schools for their kids, but likewise contribute little. They’re part of a wider phenomenon that Robert Putnam cites in his book, Bowling Alone. Americans are so busy with their personal lives that they can’t make time for the community, like participating in a bowling league. Relos are even more harried than Putnam’s Americans. Before they can become involved with a community—after finding homes, schools, doctors, churches, the mall—they’re gone.
Knowledge@Emory: What does Relo culture say about our perception of “community?”
Kilborn: It says we have less community, if by community we mean places with interacting people. But Relos are also redefining community. Their community might not be a geographic spot on the map. It might consist of their cross-border links to others with similar interests. Electronics engineers, for example, might identify with other electronics engineers, all members of associations of engineers, across the globe. They interact on the Net and at group gatherings. Those of their children who have lived abroad often don’t identify with a place or even a country. They call themselves “third culture kids.” But many of them, too, engage with other kids via electronic links—Facebook, My Space, email, texting, and so on.
Knowledge@Emory: The “Great Recession” hit Americans hard. Where do you see the growth potential for Relos as we move toward recovery?
Kilborn: This recession, like any recession, is a cyclical event. We’ll recover from it, and with recovery, industry will do what it normally does to resume its growth. The rise in the number of Relos results from the growth of global industries. The expansion of companies in one country will create the demand for emissaries to lead that growth into other countries. With recovery, Intel, for example, will make more semiconductors—and dispatch more Relos to run its foreign plants that make semiconductors.
Knowledge@Emory: How do you explain the lack of diversity within Relo culture, and won’t that have to change as America moves toward an increasingly minority-majority population?
Kilborn: The Relo universe is not monolithically white. The numbers of Asian Americans working for these companies, for example, far exceeds their representation in the population, and they tend to have higher family incomes than whites. To the extent that Relo culture is disproportionately white, there’s nothing nefarious about it. Disproportionate numbers of Relos come from states with waning job opportunities, like those of the Great Plains and the Midwest, and those states have a disproportionate number of non-Hispanic white residents. Graduates of those states’ universities go to work in the global economy, which, unlike their home towns, assures them opportunity. I can’t detect any bias among major global employers against blacks, Latinos, or Asians, and for good reason. Companies need diverse executive ranks to operate in a diverse global economy.
Knowledge@Emory: When it comes to preparation, what demands will the global economy put on Relos, and do you see American firms rising to the challenge of meeting those demands?
Kilborn: Sure. Where would IBM, or Coca-Cola, or Procter & Gamble be today if decades ago they had not only entered but conquered the global economy for their products? (Not to say they can’t fail. Kodak’s and GM’s attempts at expansion were stalled by the Japanese.) American companies have much more competition now from the once primitive economies of, say, China and India, so they’ll have to work harder. Companies will have to groom better emissaries—Relos—to operate in foreign cultures. They’ll have to do much more with languages, for example, with familiarizing students with other cultures and teaching them the tools to adapt to them.
Knowledge@Emory: What changes must American education, particularly colleges and postgraduate schools, make to help Relos in America compete on the world stage?
Kilborn: Well, all American educational institutions have to do more to expand their students’ competence to do work far from home. American national myopia—thinking this country is the first, the best, the biggest, the richest, the smartest, etc.—is already taking a huge hit from foreign industries with broader perspectives. Any day now, China’s going to knock us off. I don’t think a course in business school can change that myopia much, but the real world will change it. American companies will need to develop a similarly broad perspective—or fail.
Knowledge@Emory: You point out the toll relocation can take on youngsters. Are there differences in accomplishment, sense of belonging, or confidence between those kids who have made international moves and those who have relocated domestically?
Kilborn: There’s no single answer to that. A psychologist I discuss in my book describes some kids with a gift he calls “hardiness.” With each family move, they grit their teeth and find a way to succeed in each new place. In mastering such challenges, those kinds of kids are preparing themselves to tackle the world. They begin their working lives with a sizeable edge over kids who have not had to cope with those challenges.
But plenty of other kids—and some of their parents, too—aren’t motivated or perhaps able to grapple with the toll of bounding from one school system to another, constantly losing friends and vital relationships. They fall back in school. They develop behavioral issues. I don’t think it matters much if the relocation is international or domestic. But obviously, kids who have moved internationally are going to acquire a wider worldview than those who have not.
Knowledge@Emory: America’s population is getting older. How well do elderly Relos settle into society after years of rootless relocation?
Kilborn: No easy answer to that either. Retired Relos, having been away for decades from wherever they started, have shed attachments to a homeplace or birthplace, and they have become accustomed to finding a way to make each new place, including the one where they retire, work. But their kids pose more difficult issues. Typically, Relo parents—like most parents—want contact with their kids, and that can be hard to develop, especially when the kids have become Relos themselves. Some, in particular those who are adept at using the Internet, work it out better than others.
But imagine this scenario: You live in Bismarck, North Dakota. You’ve lived there all your life. You’ve got lifelong friends and associations there. Your son (or daughter) finishes the University of North Dakota and is recruited by a global company. He is sent to Buffalo, NY, then to Atlanta, then to Singapore, then to Portland, Maine. He and his own kids are too far and too busy to come home to visit in Bismarck, so you follow him, setting up homes close to them in Buffalo, Atlanta, Singapore. And then in Portland you have a stroke and you can’t get around anymore. Your wife’s got macular degeneration, so one of you can’t walk, the other can’t see, and neither of you can drive. Now your son is sent to Beijing. And there you are, uprooted and friendless in some nursing home back in Portland where you don’t know a soul.
Knowledge@Emory: What’s the long-term forecast? Will Relos form an expanding or shrinking part of the middle class?
Kilborn: I don’t think “class” is the question. The question is will the economy or the U.S. need more Relos or fewer? No one can answer that. The answer depends partly on the growth of the global economy, and that can’t be predicted with any certainty. American companies will certainly want to groom more locals in countries where they operate to do work currently performed by Relos. And foreign companies operating in the U.S. will want to groom Americans to do more of those jobs here. But there seems to be a limit to that. Companies that make big investments—in plants, office buildings, sales forces, laboratories—in other countries tend to require personnel from home, from their headquarters, to oversee those investments.