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Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Replay: 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 yesterday’s, 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. Perhaps that’s why they appeal so much to me….

This post originally ran on February 3, 2009.

8 Comments
Topics: Talent Attraction, Urban Culture

8 Responses to “Replay: The Return of the Native”

  1. marko says:

    Ha ha now I know why when I as a Chicago boy talk so endearingly of Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, La Cross and loving to travel to small midwest cities and around the Lakes for fun people take a gulp of their beer and scoff! They are arriviste! Look, Chicago is a global city but it’s still the functional capital of the midwest and as goes the region, so to will Chicago. We are all in this together, Rust Belt vs. the world. BTW – some of the best steaks I’ve ever had were in small Iowa towns.

  2. Justin says:

    The book you mention reminds me of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.

  3. David says:

    Truly, you can’t go home again.

    Someone should write a book by that name. . .

  4. Baja says:

    This post is timely since I am in the midst of a move back to the Midwest after 30 long years elsewhere. My move is based not on a desire to change my new home, but rather to assimilate and enjoy that which (I think) makes it unique and special. I crave stability, perhaps because the world has become so unstable, and to me at least, the Midwest represents that stability. On the other hand, I have been gone so long I truly am an outsider. In any event, my goal is to assimilate, not to stand out.

  5. Anon says:

    Coming Up for Air by Orwell is a good read on this topic

  6. wkg in bham says:

    When I was a teenager in Cocoa Beach, Florida (late 60′s) virtually everyone was from somewhere else. You’d occassionaly see the bumper sticker: “We don’t care how you used to do it back in Ohio”.

    PS. I have no intention of returning.

  7. Rob says:

    Listened to your presentation… I like Columbus as a city, and if things had gone differently (read: if then-Bank One had hired me) I probably would be living there instead of a western ‘burb of Chicago.

    I know your talk was directed specifically towards a growing, vibrant mid-sized city… but by the end of it I did wonder at the end… man, I wonder what your speech would sound like if the city of Flint had invited you in.

    Thanks for your work and posts!

  8. Jack says:

    Thanks very much Aaron and #1 Marko for articulating this. Like Marko I am a born and raised Chicagoan who also really enjoys the rest of the Midwest. I moved from central Illinois to Seattle a couple years ago for a job, and it seems like half the folks my age (twentysomething) that I meet out here are fellow migrants from the Midwest. But so often the conversation goes something like this:

    “So where are you from?”

    “A suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.”

    “Well, what brought you out here?”

    “Trying to get as far away from Ohio as I possibly could!!”

    It’s as if my adopted home is populated by everybody from my original home who didn’t like it (because it wasn’t cool enough for them) and left in disgust. It’s an odd situation to be in.

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