Opting for Elsewhere: Lifestyle Migration in the American Middle Class

Opting for Elsewhere: Lifestyle Migration in the American Middle Class

by Brian A. Hoey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826520050
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 12/31/2014
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 10.00(h) x 3.30(d)

About the Author

Brian A. Hoey is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Education in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Marshall University.

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Opting for Elsewhere

Lifestyle Migration in the American Middle Class

By Brian A. Hoey

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2005-0


Reinvent or Die

Released in 1968, the poignant, nostalgic song "America" captured the character of an especially restive time in American history. Written while singer-songwriter Paul Simon visited Saginaw, Michigan, for a concert at the local YMCA, it was released just as he and partner, Art Garfunkel, were becoming a national sensation. Simon's experience inspired him to pen a song of two lovers who strike out from the city—one reflecting during their journey that "Michigan seems like a dream to me now. / It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw. / I've come to look for America." Though Simon and Garfunkel were heading to fame and fortune, it was not by way of Saginaw—its fortunes were headed elsewhere. At this juncture, the city was poised unwittingly to leave behind glory as a star in the constellation of midwestern industrial might. Today the city has been hollowed out by cost-cutting closings of General Motors factories—with its ripple effect into local businesses—and an ensuing hemorrhage of population.

In the 2010 census, some fifty-one thousand people called Saginaw home. That's just shy of half the high-water mark set in I960. In the past decade alone, ten thousand residents called it quits to find their fortune elsewhere. To the extent that Saginaw continues to show life—at least from afar—one might say it is largely through persistent longing. In late 2010, a reporter for the Saginaw News documented appearance of what he came to understand was a coordinated effort by a mural painter who had returned to Saginaw after leaving many years earlier. He began spray-painting lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel's "America" on abandoned structures around town, over two dozen altogether. Notably, those who left Saginaw in increasing numbers over the past few decades left not so much to "look for America" as to look for improved economic prospects somewhere else within it. They opted for elsewhere.

This book is about an option of elsewhere seen in the behavior of migrants who decide on relocation as a means of starting over—here according to a personal lifestyle commitment within an overarching concern for quality of life. I aim to contextualize lifestyle migration within a discussion of significant processes of cultural, social, and economic change and debates about the meaning of such basic categories as work, family, and community. I have structured the book into five sections. Part I foregrounds essential elements of the story of lifestyle migration through introducing processes for individual and collective construction of "the good"—something basic to the relocation decisions of lifestyle migrants—together with a perspective on how this entails taking a moral orientation that is inherently spatial. I also offer a descriptive discussion of the physical setting for this research. Part II draws on the accounts of migrants as well as a historical discussion of relevant migration trends in the United States to establish an appreciation of what is at stake in lifestyle migration for people and the places that are affected by their relocation decisions. Part III furthers an examination of essential elements by exploring the changing meaning of work in the lives of lifestyle migrants as well as the importance of a cultivated sense of place in an emerging identity facilitated by the act of relocation. Part IV explores the complex dimensions and tensions entailed in the paths that lifestyle migrants take as they navigate between actual and—what we may think of as—potential selves. Part V concludes my analysis by examining dynamics between migrants and longtime residents in destination communities and tying up threads from the book as a whole in order to succinctly situate lifestyle migration in what appear as contemporary cultural trends. Finally, the Epilogue extends our consideration of what lifestyle migration might be able to tell us about what's next in American society while rounding out the stories of three central characters. I have included a discussion of methods as well as a copy of my initial interview guide in the Appendixes.

Given that the area that I chose for examining this migration phenomenon—and what it might imply about both shifting meanings and structural conditions—is in a state where stories of in-migration run very much counter to a prevailing contemporary story of exodus, I have chosen to focus the introductory chapter on the current state of Michigan in light of the aforementioned cultural, social, and economic changes. In this way, I introduce my approach to lifestyle migration, which is to explore the accounts of these migrants for what we can learn about changing cultural understandings in the United States.


In an apparent slip of the tongue, a TV reporter out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, coined a term for contemporary out-migration from the state when she inadvertently combined two words during her commentary to form the catchy "Michigration" while reporting on a study conducted by United Van Lines and released in early 2008. The study was well timed for the gaffe, coming just as a deep recession took hold of the nation. One of the country's largest moving companies, United reported that in 2007 Michigan was number one among all states for outbound moves handled by the company at 67-8 percent of all contracts (both inbound and outbound for the state). Nearly 110,000 more people left the state from 2007 to 2008 than moved in.

While many have already left Michigan, there is evidence that during the past several years many more would have moved out of state. Even in instances where skilled workers have job offers out of state, they remain saddled with homes that have lost so much value that many are now "underwater" on mortgages—a term that appropriately captures a sense of drowning. Mortgages that are underwater have home owners who own more on their loan than the value of the house and land. In real estate parlance, these homes are "distressed properties." Clearly, it isn't only the properties that are troubled. In this state, worried home owners have been unwilling or unable to leave. Many became, in effect, economic detainees of a deflated housing market. They are an opposing category to the "equity migrants" who, in better economic times, used value in houses sold in one location to fund relocations to other places. Before the economic crisis, many lifestyle migrants spoke to me of how they were able to take advantage of home equity—the value of ownership that they had built up in a home representing current market value less any mortgage balance. The relative prosperity of the 1990s and early 2000s enabled them to subsidize potentially risky career moves before the housing market collapsed. Far fewer are capable of putting to use such a strategy today.

Taking on the question of how the 2008 stock market and housing market crash may reshape the social and economic landscape of America, urban studies theorist Richard Florida fundamentally challenges home ownership as a long-privileged center to the US economy and central tenet of a normative American dream. Referring to what he terms "distortive incentives," ranging from government tax breaks to artificially low interest rate for mortgages coming into the crisis, Florida concludes that despite compelling reasons for home ownership—including higher levels of engagement in civic life—our fixation has proven too costly to the economy. An unprecedented level of home ownership—on the order of 70 percent nationally before the bust—created a workforce too often trapped in a location with few prospects at the very time that flexibility and mobility become imperatives of an emerging economy fundamentally different from the one that once established Michigan as an industrial powerhouse a century ago. The ability, if not desire, to relocate is an obligation for life in a highly globalized world.

With home ownership dropping from a historic high, the challenges of an emerging economic order on families preoccupy those who make it their job to sell houses. A recent National Association of Realtors (NAR) report gives special attention to strategizing how to convince an entire generation known by most as Millennials—now in their twenties and thirties—that owning is preferable to renting. Also called Generation Y, this birth cohort significantly outnumbers my own Generation X that preceded them. In fact, these so-called Echo Boomers—born between the early 1980s and 2000 and named by some to denote them as a demographic reverberation of the Baby Boom—number some eighty million strong. This figure puts them ahead of that earlier, swollen cohort born from the end of World War II to the early 1960s. Thus, the answer to how and where Generation Y will decide to reside is one many would like to know given that it will have substantial impact not only on the economic welfare of real estate agents but also on the economy as a whole as well as for patterns of internal migration in the United States for years to come.

Echo Boomers—many of whom were just poised to launch their adult lives and careers—have witnessed the nation's current economic and political turmoil born, in large part, by a burst housing bubble. Thus, the NAR report suggests the belief among some Realtors that this generation may no longer hold that home ownership represents the American Dream. So outward is the Millennials' apparent aversion to buying a home—now perceived as risky behavior—that economist Todd Buchholz has declared them a "Go-Nowhere Generation" to emphasize how the number of young adults living with their parents had nearly doubled by 2008 compared to 1980 (when members of that cohort were first born). Importantly, his data was collected even before the so-called Great Recession had taken hold. Similarly, while 80 percent of eighteen-year-olds in 1980 had obtained a driver's license, by 2008 that number had dropped by 15 percent. According to Nicolas Meilhan, an automotive analyst with Frost and Sullivan in Paris, "Owning a car is thought to be very stupid by Generation Y ... [who] are moving from car ownership to renting. The business model of the future is to rent." Have we gone all the way from the driveway-mechanic-fashioned muscle car to the on-demand rental car popularized by emerging companies like Zipcar in little more than a generation? Does any of this suggest a generation who, unlike their parents and grandparents, is disinclined to hit the road—whether they are hitchhiking or behind the wheel—in order "to look for America?"

Of further concern to the National Association of Realtors is the fact that their own data suggests that there may be significant shifts in consumer attitudes and behaviors. For example, just before the turmoil that began in 2007, home owners expected to stay in their properties for eight years, according to the annual "Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers" report by the NAR released in 2006. In the report issued in 2011, the expectation had nearly doubled to fifteen years.

Like many around the country that have played a waiting game, would-be migrants in Michigan have waited hoping that the housing and job markets would improve. While they waited, the broader economy deteriorated further until jobs that might have been found outside the state had disappeared as well. In Metro Detroit, the median sale price for a home dropped by two-thirds between January 2005 and January 2009.9 Ironically, in places like Detroit and nearby Youngstown, Ohio—communities tied to the auto industry—by 2012 a worker might expect no more from the sale of his or her home for than the retail price of the mid-sized cars that workers themselves were building on the job. Thus, for those who wanted to leave, it appeared that they had lost their chance—unless willing to sell at fire-sale prices in an act of desperation that would only further drive down prices on remaining homes and increase the challenges facing others who might want to leave.

Despite worries about the generation as a whole, many of those leaving the state are recent college graduates, twenty-somethings—most of whom did not own homes and are thus relatively untethered when compared to most working families. While nearly 40 percent of those leaving had at least a four-year college degree, only one-quarter of those who remain are degree holders. Although, through a legislative effort to boost Michigan's fortunes, the numbers of graduates at all levels of postsecondary education are up, as much as 53 percent of native-born University of Michigan graduates left the state in 2008 when the recession began. The loss of revenue is staggering—billions in lost paychecks and taxes. The income leaving the state cost Michigan over $100 million in 2007 alone, at a time that it could ill afford such losses.10 Departing twenty-somethings are leaving behind an aging population burdened with expensive infrastructure built for many more than those remaining—a problem felt most acutely by Detroit, which has lost some two-thirds of its population over the past half century. According to the United States Census Bureau, Detroit's population peaked in 1950 at 1.8 million residents. As of the 2010 census, the city had just over 714,000 people—a whopping 25 percent drop since the census just ten years earlier. Saginaw too saw heavy losses during the last census period, having lost 17 percent of its already greatly diminished midcentury population.

Clearly, such out-migration of the state's young is not what was intended for its investment in higher education. Who then benefits from the considerable value that this training represents? In the nearby Chicago area, expatriate communities of graduates from Michigan's largest universities are greater than concentrations of their graduates within the state. Three times as many Michigan State University graduates call Chicago home than Detroit. In the state of Washington—some two thousand miles away—the influx of college-educated workers from Michigan to work at companies such as Boeing and Microsoft over the past few years has been of sufficient volume to earn public recognition by state legislators there. Washington state representative Glenn Anderson, ranking Republican on the state's Higher Education Committee, acknowledged, "We are importing intellectual capital at a very low cost to ourselves."11 Apparently, this cheap capital import has made it difficult for the politician to increase funding for students in his home state. Why pay at home for what you can get for free from elsewhere?

During recent economic downturns in the state, Michigan's more educated workers were recruited by or sought work with the country's top companies. Many wage laborers flocked to boomtowns in the southwest such as Las Vegas. Construction and other jobs associated with the city's growth attracted well over ten thousand Michigan residents from 2001 to 2007 according to IRS figures. In 2008, however, Vegas lost thousands of construction jobs as a bubble of speculative growth burst with a housing market collapse. This gambling boomtown appeared to have gone bust. As recently as mid-2012, the state of Nevada as a whole ranked number one for home foreclosures.

Labor migration from Michigan is not new. The state has experienced many periods of economic hardship. The state's industrial economy has been wholly reinvented at least once. At the end of the nineteenth century, the state's industry began shifting from timber and other natural resource extraction to complex manufacturing with the automobile and, specifically, Henry Ford's vision not only for production but also for a consumption-driven economy that would come to define the aspirations of a burgeoning American middle class. Ford understood that the mass production that he implemented in assembly-line factories would require mass consumption in order to be profitable and sustainable. This meant paying higher wages that created opportunity for many to achieve a growing dream of both home and automobile ownership.

During much of the twentieth century, Michigan experienced booms and busts as an increasingly global economy shaped consumption of goods like cars. When times got bad, cyclical migration patterns developed in which many out-of-work residents relocated to other parts of the country not hit by a drop in demand for cars and trucks that would lead to layoffs in the auto industry. Working out of state for a period of months or even years, these economic migrants supported family back home in Michigan in order to keep hard-earned "blue-collar" middleclass homes and land paid for by hard work on the shop floors of Fordist industry. When jobs returned to Michigan during a return to profit for the automakers, so did these laborers.

This time seems different, however. When I recently spoke to people from cities like Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw, they seemed to wonder if their state would ever fully recover. Can industry in the state reinvent itself again? Without such a wholesale rebirth, the fate of the state as a whole might be like that of these cities, each of which seems caught in a protracted, downward spiral—motor cities now out of gas. Chatting with a resident of Saginaw during a roadside stop just outside the city on my way north to the study area in summer 2012, I was presented with his surreal assessment that watching the deterioration and depopulation of his hometown was as if witnessing the same wrath that Hurricane Katrina unleashed on New Orleans but only in slow motion and without the benefit of government-subsidized rebuilding in its aftermath. What could I say? I murmured "Good luck." I meant it, but in truth I am sure that luck has nothing to do with what's been going on there.


Excerpted from Opting for Elsewhere by Brian A. Hoey. Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xv

Part I Introductions

1 Reinvent or Die 3

2 Constructing the Good 11

3 Moral Horizons 25

4 Place 32

Part II Patterns of Migration

5 A Story of Lifestyle Migration 45

6 Locating the "Fifth Migration" 59

Part III Searching for Meaning

7 Place of Work 77

8 Consumption of Place 83

9 Place for Personhood 92

Part IV Moving On

10 The Option of Elsewhere 111

11 Potential Self 131

12 Making Transitions 148

Part V Conclusions

13 Migrants and Locals 167

14 Place of Lifestyle Migration 182

Epilogue: Reinvent the Pie 193

Appendix 1 Methodological Considerations 209

Appendix 2 Initial Interview Guide 215

Notes 219

Works Cited 231

Index 245

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