Just as technology was supposed to create the paperless office and render “place” meaningless, it is also widely assumed to have increased mobility. In his latest book, Who’s Your City, Richard Florida writes about technology and mobility in chapter five, “The Mobile and the Rooted.” While citing stats about how much people move, he doesn’t compare them to another era. I know lots of people like to pick fights with Florida, who I mostly agree with, but on this point, I beg to differ. The potential for increased mobility is certainly there, but isn’t borne out by the facts. As I point out in Slackonomics:
People are less likely to move today than at any point since the Census Bureau started gathering mobility stats in 1948. In 2004 only 19 percent of all movers, or 3 percent of U.S. residents, moved to another state. Most moved within the same county. As would be expected, most movers are people in their twenties. And although highly edcuated people tend to move more, they aren’t more likely to do so now than in the past.
The above is according to Alison Stein Wellner in a Reason magazine article titled, “The Mobility Myth,” (April 2006).
It’s interesting that one of Florida’s former students, Elizabeth Currid, might provide a clue as to why mobility has not increased and has even slightly decreased. As more people earn a living via the creative economy — art, music, media, technology, etc. — the more reliant they become on locational networks. As she writes in her book, The Warhol Economy:
Creativity would not exist as successfully or efficiently without its social world. The social is not the by-product–it is the decisive mechanism by which cultural products and cultural producers are generated, evaluated and sent to the market.
As Currid’s research shows, people working in arts, music, fashion, design, and media are far more likely to live and work in close proximity to each other than people in finance, medicine, law and other “golf course” professions. Why? Because they need to exchange ideas through random interactions, and market their work in social settings in order to be successful. Once you’re enmeshed in that network, to pull up stakes is to suffer a major professional setback.
Of course, Florida’s overall point — that where you live has a huge impact on your career — is valid. As someone who grew up in Cleveland and spent a good portion of my early career there, I can certainly attest to that. Had I not moved to New York in 2002, I would not have become a regular contributor to The New York Times, or written for most every other publication that’s published my work. And this book would surely not exist.
On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have had to forgo health insurance for almost five years (because there’s really no such thing as “freelancing” in Cleveland), or spent half my income (and sometimes more) on rent. I only moved once, and because it was so difficult to start over, I won’t be doing it again for a very long time, if ever. What’s more, I know few other people who make major moves when I did — in my mid-thirties, after having invested a lot of professional energy in one place that did not translate to another. I took my skills with me, of course, but that was little consolation in New York City, where I knew virtually no one and where NOBODY cared about my Cleveland work at all.
So yes, mobility is surely easier in theory, but in reality, it’s still very, very difficult. The age of corporate transfers are over. To relocate means recreating a network of people, and that takes a huge amount of time and energy. That is one of the main points of Slackonomics about how life has changed for Generation X. Read the intro for yourself by clicking here.