The Wall Street Journal
Peter T. Kilborn’s Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class documents an important piece of social history: the lives of relocating corporate executives. These modern-day nomads—overwhelming white, well-educated and middle-class—maintain the business machine of large companies. They include the technicians, marketing executives and professional managers who accept a rootless life in exchange for handsome remuneration.
Most of these people live in what Mr. Kilborn calls Relovilles, an archipelago of mostly newer, upscale suburban communities that includes places such as Alpharetta, Ga., Highland Ranch, Colo., Overland Park, Kan., and a series of Texas locales from Plano, outside Dallas, to the Woodlands on the periphery of Houston.
In the many vignettes he provides, Mr. Kilborn portrays these executives and their families in a dispassionate, even sympathetic manner. We meet Jim and Kathy Link, who have moved seven times in a little more than 10 years as Mr. Link pursued a career in selling employee-benefit services. The author rides along with Kathy as she shuttles the kids to soccer practice,and he tracks the buying and selling of the Links’ homes. “The basement is approximately the same size as my parents’ entire house,” says Jim, marveling at how much house his $200,000 annual income bought in Alpharetta.
We also meet Matt Fisher and his family. He’s an inventory-management specialist who, we’re told, has “averted dead-ending his career by mining his network of contacts to move from Chicago to Cleveland, to Columbus, to Houston, and finally to Flower Mound,” in Texas. Matt explains: “You can escalate your career if you want to move around. The ones who don’t move around don’t get the calls . . . because nobody knows who they are.”
Although Mr. Kilborn is clearly an advocate for the ideal of rooted, organic communities—a value shared by many of the “Relos” in his book—he evinces none of the snobbish dismissal of middle-class values and aspirations that one finds in the work of new urbanists such as James Howard Kunstler or Andres Duany. Yet despite the appealingly sensible outlook of “Reloville,” the book does not rise to the level of the great social histories, such as Herbert Gans’s “Levittowners” or even Alan Wolfe’s “One Nation.” Mr. Kilborn’s work lacks both the statistical rigor and deep historical perspective found in the best such works.
Mr. Kilborn also falls into something of the old journalist’s trap: trying to sell your story as something bigger than it is. He calls the Relos “a disproportionately influential strain of the vast middle class.” Yet in many ways they may not be as important as he suggests.
Overall, Mr. Kilborn estimates the total Relo population at around four million in 2007. The number includes something like 800,000 households that are moved every year by companies in the U.S.—not an insignificant group but hardly a major one in a country of more than 300 million people.
Despite his claims of their significance, Mr. Kilborn acknowledges that the Relos are far from “masters of the universe” who actually shape economies and societies. In fact, most are more the servants of top management than people in control of their own destinies. They are, Mr. Kilborn notes, “twenty-first-century heirs of William S. Whyte’s ‘Organization Man,’ who exchanged the promise of job security and a pension for his loyalty and toil.”
Yet it seems clear that the whole world of “The Organization Man” of the 1950s—predicated on stable employment— is shrinking, and rapidly. The days of large corporate organizations with a secure cadre of midlevel executives seems itself an anachronism. Companies routinely restructure their bureaucracies and outsource—to smaller independent firms domestically as well as to firms overseas. Relos may represent less the wave of the future than a stubborn hangover from the past.
One critical reason for the reduced need to uproot workers is new telecommunications technology. For generations, IBM was instrumental in shaping the Relo group that Mr. Kilborn describes. After all, this was a company with initials that, executives joked, really meant “I’ve been moved.” Yet today IBMers are not as mobile as in the past—not in terms of physical movement anyway. As much as 40% of the IBM work force operates full-time at home or remotely at clients’ businesses. For members of the company’s highly regarded consulting practice, the percentage is even higher—they’re logging frequent-flyer miles, and piling up points at Residence Inns, not putting down even shallow roots.
Perhaps even more important may be social changes that could make Relos less relevant in the future. For decades in the post-World War II era it was believed that “spatial mobility” would increase, hastening social disintegration. This vision was epitomized in Vance Packard’s 1972 best-seller, “A Nation of Strangers,” with its vision of America as “a society coming apart at the seams.”
But in fact, far from becoming ever more nomadic, Americans are becoming less so, as the population ages and as formerly urban amenities are more widely dispersed and accessible. As recently as the 1970s, 20% of Americans moved annually; by 2004 the number had dropped to 14%— the lowest since 1950. By 2008, barely 10% were relocating.
These days human-resource executives complain that workers are increasingly unwilling to move even for a promotion, citing family and other concerns. With the recent economic downturn, worker mobility in the U.S. has waned further. The decline in the relocation tradition seems likely to persist in good times or bad.
Even the denizens of Relovilles who bought houses under the assumption that they’d be selling and moving on after a few years are now deciding to stay put. And formerly transient communities are evolving into something more permanent. Recent interviews that I conducted in the Woodlands, near Houston—one of the Relovilles identified by the author—revealed a growing sense of community, with some three-generation families now settled in the area.
Over the past 40 years the institutions of community have emerged in the Woodlands. For example, a well-managed and expansive social-service organization called Interfaith has risen to take care of many needs, from welcoming new families to providing services to children and seniors. A well-attended cultural center has grown up in the town, as has something of a Main Street shopping district. The Woodlands is shedding its past as a generic Reloville and becoming its own place.
Urban critics might see these evolving Relovilles as too faux for their tastes, but they do hint at a more rooted, less mobile suburban world, far more human than that envisioned by many futurists over the past few decades. Mr. Kilborn’s “Reloville” may turn out to be less about America’s social future than a fair and well-written chronicle of a phenomenon that is slowly, but inexorably, relocating into the history books.
This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.