The Age of Mobility

Mobility has become something of a buzz word these days, particularly in the context of one’s economic and employment condition. Increasingly we see movement among people, whether in terms of place, jobs, education, or social groups as more common, at least among a growing segment of the population.There has always been the phenomenon of socioeconomic mobility, the upward or downward movement of economic status with its resulting standard of living levels. As Americans we pride ourselves on having created a meritocratic system, in which ability and talent rather than simply inherited wealth and privilege, can lead to upward mobility. And ingrained in that potential is of course the risk of failure and descent.The mobility I’m emphasizing goes beyond this more historic form however. It is a mobility that in part defines the changing nature of career and economic success in an evolving economy. It is mobility that is encouraged and motivated by discovering and acquiring increasingly elusive Opportunity. If work you want to do is more likely to be found in Los Angeles, then you leave your home in New Hampshire. If hiring is more robust in accounting, then you don’t follow your parents’ careers as teachers. If the variety of diverse lifestyle and work choices within a multicultural neighborhood is more appealing, then you leave your mostly white and Protestant home town. If your impetus is to develop truly innovative and groundbreaking services, then you don’t follow the path of anyone else.

As one prepares for adulthood and career there appears to be a fundamental choice to be made–opt for a career characterized more by features of mobility or of tradition. Throughout much of our history we were content to stay close to where we were born and to do work, whether in or out of the home, that was done by our parents. We continued family farming, worked in the same paper mill as our father and grandfather, raised children full time at home, and provided goods and services for families much like ours in the area. There were social and economic benefits, in short Opportunity, to carry on these traditions. That continuity still has appeal for many, but perhaps for a decreasing number.Economic Opportunity now is seen by an expanding number of people as requiring mobility. For home grown and newly arrived Americans the ticket to a broader range of career options is education. It may be difficult to know exactly what the right thing is to study at first, but the belief that continuing education beyond high school and indeed throughout one’s working years is necessary to keep one economically viable and marketable is widely accepted. As is the understanding that one’s career now has an inherent mobility with all its twists, turns, and changes. (Most CEOs for example didn’t major in business administration, but rather in subjects like history, political science, and communications).Immigrants continue to serve as examples of assertive mobility. Sure, the attraction of the US has long been there for those from abroad who have wanted to put America’s socioeconomic upward mobility reputation and principles to the test. Indeed that continues to happen. But many of today’s immigrants to America also know that to achieve a decent or higher standard of living they need to more intelligently hunt for and snag Opportunity. The word is out that it won’t be handed to them. Immigrants disrupted their lives intentionally, leaving much of their past and what is familiar behind. Their energy, enthusiasm, and drive are worth paying attention to and perhaps emulating as much now as ever.

Hopefully we can make our world friendly and prosperous for those with inclinations toward both mobility and tradition. Collectively we shouldn’t have to conclude one way of life survives and the other doesn’t. Yet, the trend toward mobility is mobilized and gathering steam. No matter how you choose to engage your career and livelihood your relationship with mobility must be considered.