Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the road again. Heck, at least once!

Every once in a while, when discussing the economic future, I ask students who are pretending to listen to me whether they would consider moving far away from Oregon.  "What if you have much better employment opportunities in North Dakota?" is my favorite way to get them to think.  I like beating up on North Dakota because back when I was a graduate student, I used to tell people, "hey, if the teaching job is in North Dakota, then that's where I will go."

Moving far away from home because of productive, gainful, and meaningful employment is not an alien concept to me.  As a young man, my father headed all the way to a remote part of India, from his roots way down in the country's peninsula, and that was back when transport was slow, and there were no phones.  From door to door--from his place to grandma's--was a five day travel.  Ten days out of a month's vacation were merely for the travel.  My grandfather would have taken up a job in Ceylon if it had not been for the elders in the family who blocked his plans.

I intentionally asked for a posting in Calcutta at the campus recruitment.  And then I came here to the other side of the planet as a 23-year old, before the Web was invented and when international calls severely dented my graduate student budget.

Even now, old high school friends are in different parts of India and around the world.  Geographic mobility has been very much a part of my life. I have even written op-eds exploring these (like this one.)    Which is why the students' responses always surprise me--most of them do not want to move far away!

I then remind them about how people immigrated from European countries, fully knowing that they might never ever be able to visit their homelands, and might never be able to even talk with any of the ones they were leaving behind.  After all, the large scale European immigration to the US was before telephones and air travel.  Yet, they moved.  And they even moved to godawful North Dakota!

In some classes, I have even joked that they--and the American youth--have become wusses compared to their grandparents and great-grandparents.

I am not the only one who thinks about all these.  For instance, here is Arthur Brooks in his column in the New York Times:
Through census data, we know that Americans are less geographically mobile today than at any point since 1948. Other scholarship suggests that the decline stretches back further. This might help explain why our country is having such a hard time getting out of its national funk.
Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers. If you descended from immigrants, I’m betting your ancestors didn’t come to this country for the fine cuisine. More likely they came in search of the opportunity to work hard and get ahead.
Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement.
It is not merely the economic opportunity issues.  I worry that the young increasingly shy away from taking chances. 
The mobility decline since the Great Recession has actually been the most pronounced among millennials. As the first rungs of the economic ladder became more slippery, young adults began to delay major steps into adulthood and became less likely to relocate for college or careers.

I can think of a number of reasons. Like the over-protective parenting of today where free-range kids are not possible.  The umbilical cord that continues via the constant texting and phones with the parents. The education system that has made kids into subservient and unthinking adults.  Whatever the reasons are, we need to get the young to get moving again.  


Ramesh said...

YES. I've often been surprised about the lack of mobility in the US. A land of immigrants has within 200 odd years become completely immobile. Forget North Dakota - If there are opportunities in Timbuktu, you should be going there.

In today's world you cannot really succeed without being global. So spread the message in your campus. Do grad school in Tsinghua (Beijing). Or at ISB (Hyderabad) . Or at IMD (lausanne) . Or at AUC (Cairo)........

Sriram Khé said...

interesting you should mention Timbuktu ... that too has featured in my class discussions. If ever I don't use the North Dakota example, I might say something like "pack your bags and head to Timbuktu" .... of course, most students do not know where that is, and then I give them a quick spiel on its location and how it was an important stop in the trade routes of Western/Northern Africa, and how the maniacal extremists are hell bent on destroying the place :(
During one such conversation in a class, one student with a last name "Tew" (pronounced as too) joked that maybe he will name his future son "Timbuk" so that the name would be Timbuk Tew ... my kind of humor ;)

Mike Hoth said...

I've run into this trouble personally, and it's a large part of my continued troubles finding employment. Now that I'm married, I have a wife and three parents (the fourth is on my side) who absolutely will not let my job prospects relocate me. When talking with them as a group about my most recent job offers, they were surprised to hear that between LA, Denver and Baltimore I wanted most to relocate to Maryland.
My reason for picking Baltimore was that I hate LA (I've been once, it was enough to know) and Denver would have dropped me into the middle of my wife's extended family. I wanted to go out into the world, just the two of us, and try to survive on our own. The job was temporary, but after two years I would qualify for a full-time position. If living on the east coast was awful, we could move back. Alas, my wanderlust was denied by fears of "what if something happens" and "what if you miss home"? Safety nets are all the rage, these days.

Sriram Khé said...

I wish you well, young man.
BTW, LA ain't that bad--I lived there for a few years ;)
Keep playing the Randy Newman song: ;) ;)