Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

The Return of the Native

“Boomerang migration” is a hot topic in talent circles. In places where brain drain looms large, the belief that people who’ve left will come back later in life after they have children and are ready to settle down close to family back home is a powerful hope for cities looking to boost their pool of educated workers. Often too, people who left for the big city after school find themselves looking for a more purposeful existence in life, and decide to move back to make a difference.

Yet, boomerang migration is fraught with peril as well. As someone who believes that literature can teach us something about life, this to me was illustrated best by The Return of the Native, the greatest book from that great English novelist Thomas Hardy. I won’t rehash the plot here, but let me just give this book my highest recommendation for fiction.

As you may gather from the title, it involves a case of a local boy made good in the big city, who decides to return to the rural countryside of his youth aiming to make a difference there. Alas, he not only fails to make any change, he himself is destroyed in the process.

As someone who’s made a couple of round trips between Indiana and the world, I’m very cognizant that there is a certain danger of arrogance involved in moving to a place with the idea that, beyond purely self interest, you can make a difference and a positive chance. It is easy to see how those who never left a place, many of whom never had many educational or economic opportunities, or who otherwise value rootedness and tradition over the new, might look askance at those who made different choices who now want to return and try to remake a place in another image. And there’s a lot more of them than there are boomerangers. One can create a caricature of the spoiled, over-educated youth swooping back to rescue the failing hometown out of the goodness of his own heart.

I think boomerang migrants are more likely to encounter problems reconciling themselves to a place than those who move there with no connection. I’ve mentioned the problem of “that’s little kids stuff” before. People, especially those from smaller or less hip destinations, are very cognizant of their plebian origin. You see this manifest itself when they move to bigger cities. They immediately realize their inadequacy and set about in earnestness trying to get beyond it. This frequently takes the form of contempt from where they came from. Again, I’ve noted that the place that probably has the worst brand perception of smaller Midwestern cities is Chicago. Why is that? Well, because all too many of the people who live there came from those same smaller places and are desperate to prove their big city bona fides. As someone once said, contempt for where you came from is the signature attribute of the arriviste.

Returning, all of this comes rushing back. Particularly when perceptions have legitimately changed. When I was a kid, Ponderosa was my favorite steak place. Now, after years of eating USDA Prime, I can never go back and experience Ponderosa in the same way again. I probably don’t enjoy today’s steaks any more than yesterdays, a topic worthy of its own post, but I’ll never be able to capture that past experience. The act of moving away from home unmoors us from the limits of our origins. It’s no surprise that the college educated are more likely to migrate. It isn’t just the skills, it’s that four years away from home opens a world of possibility in our eyes. Even at 22, if you return, it’s to a difference place than you left, because you’re a different person. Because those who didn’t leave haven’t experienced this change, there’s an estrangement from your past. You no longer fit in. There’s something wrong. The cliche is true: you can never go home again.

Returning after a few years on the west coast, you come back to find a place that seems awkwardly not what you would expect or hope for. This inspires a particular desire to change or “improve” a place. There’s an almost desperation to validate the choice of return.

This is a particular danger to the boomerang migrant. Those who move to a place without a connection to it are not so burdened. Firstly, they are much more likely to have moved out of purely economic self-interest than any desire to make a difference. And, if things don’t work out, they have less emotional investment in the decision and can simply move back or move elsewhere.

There seems to me two lessons once could take from this. One is simply to leave home and never come back. The other is that in contemplating to choose to move home, for whatever reason, one should come with a sense of humilty and modest ambitions, armed mostly with personal goals and without too many ambitions to change the world. Because the only thing you’re likely to change is yourself, from an excited dreamer to a bloodied and frustrated person. Change, in any place, is a long term game.

And change is definitely needed. Outside ideas and perspectives should be welcome. In an ever more complex, rapidly changing, interconnected, globalized world, a city’s best economic interests are not going to be served by business as usual and a population made up almost entirely of people who’ve never lived anywhere else.

Outsiders are critical for change to occur. It is extremely difficult to change yourself. That’s why even Tiger Woods has a coach. People who have outside experiences are definitionally more open to things beyond the status quo. They not only have more contact with the outside world, they come to the old ways of doing business without being invested in them.

This is where the boomerang migrant plays a key role in this for the Midwest, I believe. It would be easy to say, let’s just lure people with no connection at all. Even better. And actually, I’ve advocated that cities should do just that. So many places can’t imagine that anyone who didn’t grow up there would want to live in them. They have to grow beyond that. However, the boomerang migrant can help pave the path. This is in two ways. The first is simply to be there, to provide a common frame of reference for the outside world and outside ways of thinking so that when the true outsider gets there, he’s got someone to relate to. The second is to start the early stages of the change process, to fertilize the soil, to create the conditions for those without a connection to come in, to pave the runway for them. A critical mass of boomerang migrants might be a necessary first stage to attracting others.

The presence of boomerangers creates tension and a bit of unpleasantness, both for them and for the city. Yet, I think that’s healthy. A little conflict is good for us, however bad it might seem at the time. Iron sharpens iron. The key is to strike the right balance, so that the boomerangers don’t end up destroyed in the process, while not letting them throw away all the old home values that clearly have something good to them after all.

Postscript: Lest you think Hardy only teaches the lesson of the folly of the boomerang, his work also suggests you can’t stay away and you can’t stay home either. The misfit is doomed. As you might gather, Hardy’s tragedies are among the most bleak out there.

Topics: Talent Attraction, Urban Culture

8 Responses to “The Return of the Native”

  1. Boofer says:

    Consider this in the context of your description of the Boomerang Migrant:

    People move to New York for what New York can do for them. Do people move to Indianapolis for what they can do for Indianapolis? I’m intrigued by the concept of the Boomerang Migrant, but I don’t know anyone around Indy that fits the description. In fact, I know dozens of people who moved here from elsewhere in the country, liked the area, and stayed. It makes me wonder who all these Boomerangers are and how I can meet them.

    On that same note, you are spot on with your recurring theme of people in the Midwest, and Indianapolis in particular, needing to broaden their worldview and look outward to the ideas and concepts of the world at large. I occasionally teach international business courses to undergraduates. I am always shocked/dismayed/saddened by the limited, insular perspective on the world that these bright young people have. I always start my semester courses with a survey of where people have travelled outside of the United States. At least 90% of my students have never experienced another country’s culture by traveling abroad, save for the occasional Spring Break or family vacation in Cancun or the Bahamas, etc. The unfortunate manifestation of this is that these students have very distorted conceptions of what life, business, and culture are like outside of this country. Their opinions and perceptions are formed solely by what they see in the media. This leads to stereotypes and a kind of fear of the outside world. I do have the occasional student who has travelled for business or leisure, and they always have a more open and realistic worldview. It would benefit everyone greatly if we as Americans had a greater tendency toward travel, to experience the world outside of our borders first-hand and without preconception. I know it’s not practical or possible for everyone to travel abroad as, say, the British tend to do. But wouldn’t it be a great idea to establish some sort of grant-based program to allow students or ordinary citizens to travel abroad? If Indianapolis could get 100 people a year to spend one week each in a different foreign city, think what that could do to benefit us all in the long run…

  2. Ahow says:

    Boofer, I am a Boomerang Migrant. I grew up on the southside of Indy, went to Purdue for 4 years, moved to Chicago to sow my wild oats for 2.5 years, turned to married life in Seattle for 3.5 years, and recently returned to Indy with an inflated sense of self-worth.

    Alas, as I read this post, I felt like it was written specifically for me. Just this morning, I was standing at the trashcan with the seal from a half-gallon paper milk carton, contemplating whether to drop it in the trash or put forth the effort to help it find its way from my hand, to the recycle basket, to the garage, to my car trunk, to Marsh, to the recycle bin. It was #1 plastic, but it wasn’t printed on that particular part of the carton, so I was convinced it would probably get thrown out.

    In the end, I felt terrible, but I put it in the trash.

    Hardy should write a novel about me…

  3. Jim Russell says:

    I think post-colonial authors such as Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri better chronicle the boomerang migrant experience. However, there does seem to be a timeless theme of being caught between two places and never feeling at home in either one of them.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I might count as a boomeranger. I spent my grade-school years in Columbus, high school and college on both coasts, then returned to Indiana as an adult.

    I don’t know that I had illusions of improving the place. I just wanted four seasons and more-relaxed place to raise a family in the city.

  5. SpeedBlue47 says:

    I guess you could call me a Boomerang Migrant. I was born and raised in Warren Township, went to college, then the Air Force, got married, moved to Texas for 2 years, and then came back. I think many people are like me. Especially now with the war winding down.

    My decision to come back had nothing to do with “trying to better” Indianapolis. I’m trying to better myself, and I know that I have a competitive advantage compared to many others here because I have seen most of the nation and other countries(Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea). But I don’t think it made me a “better” person per se. Mostly, my thoughts on other places were mostly just put into a concrete form as I had read alot about and had experiences with people from these areas. But everywhere I went I gained skills, experience, and perspective.

    I came back because I believed that my local social network was a lot stronger than the network I had built in Texas. I think this is the case with many people, but I think that there is something else that really draws people back. Though they begrudged the “boring” nature of their Midwestern homeland, they recognize that it was a safe and convenient place to raise their kids where they would be exposed to certain values that they deem important to future success(i.e., the so-called “Protestant Ethic”).

    Many of the Sunbelt cities have succeeded because they have created an environment that draws these potential “boomerangers” when they are young, but also gets them to stick. This is what Indy hasn’t been able to do, people who have connections here know the value proposition that Indy has to offer to them and their families, but people with no connection to the city would never be in their room one day and say “You know what, I’m moving to Indy. That’s where I’ll make my fortune.”

    This plays directly into UP’s talk about brand image. What sort of people would even think about Indianapolis to move to? Maybe those interested in a career in Pro Racing(specifically open wheel), but what else? We have no other form of notoriety, and I’m sorry, but amateur sports does not draw in people looking to plant their flag. Indianapolis has to find a way to create a synergy between its fortes evolve them into a coherent whole strategy. I actually don’t think this is hard, and I believe the new ICVA strategy plays right into it: “The Spirit of Competition”. We have many assets that could be used to bring this strategy to fruition, between IMS, Conseco, The Luke, Victory Field, the IUPUI sports facilities, and our expanding convention space.

    It is my contention that if Indy wants to draw in people with the kind of attitude that creates permanent and lasting change, we should create a culture of competition. Maybe our goal should be to evolve into the “Competition Capitol of the World”. IMS holds only a fraction of the events it could hold because it sees it usefulness as quarantined to only the motor racing industry. With our core facilities well connected, maybe this could be greatly expanded to include all sorts of competitions, and not just sports. Think of the impact these competitions could have on the city and its reputation:

    -and more….

    If we could challenge leaders of industry groups to think of creative ways to put our unique set of facilities and infrastructure to use, private associations could utilize capital from around the nation to put our city in the limelight. And with this, maybe those who are potential boomerangers might look to Indy as a destination, and maybe the overall value of the city could convince them to make Indy their home.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In Lafayette they call this the rubber band theory. People they move away but the rubber band pulls them back.

  7. downtown-creator.net says:

    In many european cities, the Erasmus project allow students to spend one year studying abroad. The aim of the project was the creation of a group of internationally-minded students all over europe. Instead, the result was the creation of a big group of boomerang migrators, who just waited till the end of their studies to come back in the country where they have spent their exchange year.

  8. hideoussunday says:

    A great read, but please, please stop pushing “Return of the Native!” :) Just finished it and found it a turgid melodrama unworthy of Hardy’s best. “Tess” or “Jude” give a better return on the investment of time. In any case, great blog…

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures