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Relos: Mid-level executives for U.S. companies whose livelihoods depend on their willingness to uproot their families in pursuit of professional success.
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The Links bought their first home in the master-planned community of Clear Lake City, Texas, now a part of Houston. Kathy juggled career and family after their daughters Kelsey and Kristina were born. But in 1994, when
T. Rowe Price, the mutual fund company, sent Jim to its headquarters in Baltimore to manage sales of 401(k) retirement plans to businesses, she was expecting their third child, and she stopped working. It made sense, with Jim’s transfer.
The Links had become Relos.
I had never heard the word Relo (pronounced REE-low) until a visit to Alpharetta, Ga., in early 2004, a decade after Jim and Kathy Link left Houston, to do research for The New York Times. Then I heard it on every lawn. I came upon a Memorial Day fair in Medlock Bridge, a subdivision of 636 homes with an Alpharetta mailing address in an unincorporated northeastern corner of Atlanta’s Fulton County. I met Jim, an affable bartender, manning the beer cooler. In the previous 10 years, the Links had already moved from Houston to Baltimore to Rochester, N.Y., and, in 2000, to Alpharetta. In 25 years, Alpharetta had grown from 3,000 people dispersed over pastures and cotton fields to a checkerboard of fresh asphalt and tidy subdivisions with 40,000 people.
Young and middle-aged families at the fair, all with kids, all into sports, all with spacious late-model houses and late-model vans and SUVs, were calling themselves Relos. “Relo” was a noun, a verb, an adjective. Relos were Relo-ed by a Relo company that employers would hire to help Relos pack up, line up a van, and find suitable neighborhoods and schools in the next Reloville. Relos found homes through the “Relo Man” or “Relo Woman,” a special breed of real estate agent who catered to them. Strictly speaking, some real estate firms and moving companies called anyone whose company covered the cost of moving a Relo, but no Relo would call herself one until she had been moved two or three times.
My book, Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class (Times Books, 2009), is about Relos, a disproportionately influential strain of the vast middle class. With its mix of family traditions, education, incomes and attitudes, the middle class as a whole eludes crisp definition. But at its core is a faith in open horizons and a willingness to risk losing ground to gain ground, the trait most characteristic of Relos. They are an affluent, hard-striving class. They inflate the American Dream and put it on wheels. Following the money as they migrate through the suburbs of Atlanta, Denver and Dallas and the expatriate villages of Beijing and Bombay, they create an insular, portable and parallel culture with little-recognized but real implications for American society at large.
Relos aren’t the one-time movers who fled the Rust Belt or the inner cities for the suburbs or who forge 21st century stucco frontiers in places like Las Vegas and Gilbert, Mesa and Chandler, Ariz., and then settle down. Unlike many other uprooted Americans who make the United States one of the world’s most mobile countries, Relos hold jobs that move them again and again. Some companies and government agencies make periodic relocation a condition of employment or of promotion. A record of periodic relocation—climbing the ranks of one company or bounding from company to company—can grease the way to chief executive. About a third of recently appointed CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies worked in three or more locations, at their current companies or others, before moving to headquarters.
Like most Americans, Relos value their health, homes, jobs, weekends and immediate neighbors—at least, that is, while they are among them. They get Christmas cards from the last subdivision, but after a couple of years, the cards stop. Relos don’t have accents. Wherever they go, they don’t belong. Their kids don’t know where they are from. Relos don’t know where their funerals will be or who might come. They might value close family ties and deep friendships and keep parents’ and siblings’ pictures on their computers and refrigerators, but they see them only for the ritual week at the beach or year-end holidays. Relos tend to know mostly other Relos, from their offices, subdivisions, PTAs, and kids’ soccer and baseball teams. At Reloville megachurches—rivaling Las Vegas for pyrotechnic stagecraft and showmanship—none of the parishioners acknowledged me. Then I noticed that no one acknowledged anyone.
Worldwide Picture Window
Since the 1970s, companies’ need for Relos has ballooned with the expanding world economy and a mind-boggling surge in foreign trade.
American foreign trade leaped from $374 billion in 1970 to $3.3 trillion in 2007. Someone knocked on doors to buy and sell all those goods and services, negotiate contracts, run marketing and advertising campaigns, and balance companies’ books. Those knocking were Relos.
Never staying long in any place and often leapfrogging through a succession of employers, Relos are characters in the West’s transformation from an economy built on a bedrock of durable institutions and relationships to a postindustrial economy built on airplanes, ships, the Internet and short-term arrangements. “Marriage vows, the homestead, corporate stability and job security—all have suffered in the ever-evolving world” of international commerce and the Internet, writes Ellen Dunham-Jones, head of the architecture program at Georgia Tech. Homes, subdivisions, factories, malls, office parks and employees, too, become “disposable assets” covered by “temporary contracts.”
“Temporary contracts—of all kinds—are based on consuming rather than sustaining relationships,” Dunham-Jones says. “The more one’s life, property and landscape consist of temporary contracts, the more one operates as a lone nomad, a sole proprietor within the overwhelming structure of global capital. The lack of constraining relationships affords tremendous individual freedom—but at a cost. A world of temporary contracts inhibits sustained belonging of any kind, inhibits bonding to either people or place.” She adds, “The exchange of long-term relationships for short-term transactions has left us a crowd of perpetual strangers who often fail to recognize the value of shared needs and aspirations.”
The numbers of Relos among all movers—one in seven, or 40 million Americans each year—are hard to pin down because they get lost in demographic statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t differentiate serial corporate movers—the real Relos—from those who are moved just once. Relos also elude census takers when abroad and beyond the bureau’s purview, and when moving more than once during the five-year intervals that the bureau uses to measure mobility. The numbers also fluctuate as employers cut back on relocations and employees, when the economy stalls, and then bring employees back on as it rebounds.
But in general, the Census Bureau has found that employers transfer or recruit and move about 4 million Americans, including children and spouses, each year from another county, state or country. The Worldwide Employee Relocation Council, a trade association that represents many companies that employ Relos, calculated that in 2007 employers moved 800,000 households, mostly families, within the United States. That and reports of moving van operators and companies that manage relocation for employers suggest that active Relos—people who were moved in the last year or two and will be moved again soon—come to around 10 million, or 3 percent of the U.S. population.
Whatever their numbers, Relos’ sway over the economy dwarfs them. Because Relos concentrate in affluent, fast-growing communities where their companies have increasingly built headquarters and branch offices during the past two decades, they exert disproportionate influence over the look and character of towns that become models for much of suburbia. “The short-term people don’t give a damn,” said Fred Adam, a 64-year-old lawyer and a regular at the B&B Café’s luncheon roundtable in Castle Rock, Colo. “They don’t plant trees, and they don’t plant bushes.” A home buyer typically holds back 10 percent from the builder until construction is complete, but some Relos, leaving town soon or not, won’t pay until Adam goes after them. “They aren’t going to sit there and bargain. They’ll jump in and buy something. They have driven property values up. Corporations take care of them,” Adam declares.
And life in Reloville was wearing on Jim and Kathy Link: Home from the Memorial Day fair, Jim said what made Medlock Bridge so neighborly and comfortable also left it flavorless. He was living among clones of himself. “You play tennis with them,” he said. “You have them over to dinner. You go to the same parties. We’re never challenged to learn much about other economic groups.”
The Next Move
In Houston, just out of Texas A&M, Jim Link went to work selling insurance for Prudential and moved to T. Rowe Price to sell mutual funds. Price moved him and the family to Baltimore. Three years later, Jim took a job with Manning & Napier, a financial advisory firm in Rochester, N.Y., and moved the family there. After three more years, in 2000, he went to First Union Corp., a bank in Atlanta, and the Links moved to Alpharetta. First Union soon merged with another banking company, Wachovia Corp., and in 2005 Wachovia moved him to headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. The Links were in Charlotte barely a year when Wachovia sold Jim’s group to another bank and he was let go. Months later, the PFM Group, a financial management and advisory firm in Philadelphia, hired him. The Links moved to suburban Wayne, Pa., and in late 2007, PFM made Jim a managing director, a promotion that probably precludes any more moves.
As Relos, the Links are corporate relocatees, or career transferees. Employers like Microsoft, Intel and Apple; Procter & Gamble and General Electric; PepsiCo and Coca-Cola; UPS and FedEx; and Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase move them every few years to fly the corporate flag and work in far-flung factories and offices in the United States and abroad.
Relos are 21st century heirs of William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (Simon and Schuster, 1956), who exchanged the promise of job security and a pension for his loyalty and toil. Relos exchange not so much their loyalty and toil as their friends, their family ties and the comforts of a hometown for bigger money and a bigger job—or to hold on to a job. Like Sloan Wilson’s Tom Rath of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, they run on a corporate leash and sell out, too, but to the road.
Relos tend to be economically homogenous, with mid-career incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 a year. They differentiate themselves by their kids’ activities and by the disposable tokens of their success—the leased car and the home du jour. Most go to state universities, disproportionately to schools of the Great Plains and the Midwest, where good jobs can be scarce, and many go on to graduate schools. They vote two-to-one Republican, although in the 2008 presidential election, their votes for Barack Obama narrowed the gap. Most are Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran or nondenominational Protestant. The vast majority of Relo breadwinners are white men ages 30 to 50. In many Relovilles, unlike the nation as a whole, Asians tend to outnumber black and Hispanic residents.
Some Relos find their salaries, toys and perks compensating—the schools with top SAT scores, tennis and golf clubs, parks for youth sports, and upscale shopping strips. But they often complain of stress and anomie. They trade a home in one place for a job that could be anyplace. Perched in their Relovilles, they have little in the way of community ties or big, older city amenities like mass transit, museums, zoos, professional sports stadiums and live theater.
Outside the gates of their subdivisions, in the towns beyond, Relos are ghosts. They support their own subdivisions’ causes like runs to cure breast cancer. But with the father on the road most weekdays and another move always looming, Relos have neither the time nor the need to sit on town boards or run in local elections, or join church vestries or Rotary Clubs.
On the face of it, Relo families seem no more or less striving or stressed or self-satisfied or absorbed in their kids, kitchens and lawns than many middle-class Americans. They patronize the same ubiquitous chain stores, restaurants and fitness centers. But on a drive through Alpharetta’s subdivisions, Bradd Shore, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, made a novel observation: “The American family lasts only a generation and a half.” He said families tend to keep up their rituals and sentimental connections after the children move out and begin having children. But when the second generation of children starts leaving, the original family disintegrates unless it makes Herculean efforts to preserve itself. This disintegration, Shore said, is most pronounced among families who abandon their generational moorings—that is, Relos.
Relovilles have corralled new regional outposts for hardy graybeards like General Electric, IBM, Intel and Lockheed, for stars of the digital age like Microsoft, Google, Cisco Systems and Apple, and for foreign contenders for world markets.
These global companies and their migrating workers stoke much of younger suburbia’s growth. Of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties from 2000 to 2005, five of the top 10—Loudoun County, Va., west of Washington, D.C.; Forsyth in Georgia, abutting the north Fulton County city of Alpharetta; Douglas County, south of Denver; Delaware County, north of Columbus; and Plano’s Collin County, north of Dallas—also had the country’s highest proportions of newcomers, many of them Relos.
They were affluent, too. Among the 100 counties, Loudoun, Douglas, Forsyth, Delaware and Collin ranked first, second, fourth, eighth and 10th in median family income. They ranked in the top 10 for residents who had bachelor’s and graduate degrees and who held management and professional jobs. These five counties—and a dozen more among the fastest-growing, including Denton, north of Dallas; Cherokee, north of Atlanta; and Scott, near Minneapolis—have become young-money heirs of old-money suburbs like Greenwich, Conn., and Grosse Pointe, Mich.
Alpharetta is the first city of 21st century Relovilles. Among communities with more than 25,000 people and excluding those with churning populations of retirees and college students, Alpharetta has the highest concentration of Relos in the United States. The 2000 census found that 52 percent of Alpharetta’s men, women and children over age 5 had come from another county or state or from abroad since 1995. Most were employee transferees. When a company moves a family to a Reloville, it is likely to move that family again and again—or a competitor swoops in to recruit and move them.
For a population that the census has yet to classify, it seems a stretch to attribute the homogenization of these suburbs’ homes and neighborhoods to Relos. Yet in the choices they make, Relos shape and define the communities as much as developers and politicians. They exert what economists call a multiplier effect on their local economies. Buying and selling homes every three or four years, re-landscaping, redecorating and refurnishing them, Relos generate many times more business than people who move to a town to stay.
The Next Promotion
The web pages of 12 global companies—Boeing, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, ExxonMobil, Fluor, General Electric, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble—listed 315 top officers in 2008. One hundred twenty-six of these men and women, or 40 percent, were hard-core, serial Relos—people who had been moved at least four times. Five had been moved 10 or more times. Caterpillar had moved 15 of its top 33 officers five or more times.
The Worldwide ERC—Employee Relocation Council—says that half of all promotions entail a move. In a report about a 2005 survey of 136 of its members, the ERC said, “Nearly three-quarters of survey participants responded that employees who wished to advance into senior positions in their companies needed to relocate with the company.”
It is easy to see what drives companies to rear Relos. In but 14 years, from 1990 to 2004, all nations’ combined domestic economies leaped from $23 trillion to $57 trillion.
Yet globalization has become a slippery slope for many employees, Relos included. Once, companies like IBM, Caterpillar and Kodak had world markets to themselves. But as scrappy upstarts from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe came along, the U.S. behemoths had to cut costs to compete. Many reneged on their promises of secure employment and company-paid health care and pensions in return for the Organization Man’s lifetime of hard and loyal work. Routinely, they resorted to layoffs, downsizing, mergers and spinoffs.
Relos can be treated like fire extinguishers—scrapped when they’re old or spent. Companies dispatch Relos to conquer markets far from home without planning what to do with them next. In a survey of employers in 2006, the accounting and consulting firm KPMG concluded, “38 percent of employees leave an organization after completing an international assignment because there is no longer an appropriate job for them in their home countries.” But they’re getting the message. Twenty-six percent of those who leave are recruited by other companies, often direct competitors.
The loss of job security on the one hand and aggressive recruiting on the other have begotten a species of men and women who run their own careers. If no longer coddled by cradle-to-grave job security, they are also no longer bound by it. They shed employers as freely as they know the employers can shed them. The workers, and the companies’ hiring officers, too, keep executive recruiters, or “headhunters,” a button away on their BlackBerry devices.
These workers become “boundaryless careerists.” Michael B. Arthur, a management professor at Suffolk University in Boston, and Denise Rousseau, a professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, call boundaryless careers the opposite of organizational careers. Boundaryless careerists depend not on an employer’s promises, but on their own skills, networks of contacts and reputations with their true employer—the marketplace.
The author is a former reporter for The New York Times. From the book Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America’s New Rootless Professional Class by Peter T. Kilborn (Times Books, 2009). Copyright © 2009 by Peter T. Kilborn. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company.
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