Dissolving Communities

The modern path to the “middle-class” lifestyle requires individuals to continually detach themselves from the communities that nurture them. The result is a fundamental disconnect between institutions and the people they serve…

In the information age, it’s often pointed out that technology has the dual effect of making the world more connected while also distancing people from one another. The net impact is a sort of institutionalized alienation that few seem able to overcome.

While this “digitization effect” is unquestionable, I believe there’s another factor at play here — one which often gets taken for granted.

If you asked a millennial to tell their whole “life story,” he or she would most likely approach this by recounting the major stages (aka hoops) they’ve passed through to get where they are today. You can probably guess what this would sound like:

I grew up in (insert hometown), THEN I went to high school, THEN I went away to (insert college), THEN I went to (insert graduate school), THEN I moved to (insert city) and started working for (insert company)…

What’s striking about this is the sheer number of “THEN” statements you would hear. Each represents an individual pulling up stakes from where they are in order to advance to the next stage of their life.

Being a social and communal nomad like this tends to be encouraged as means of broadening one’s horizons and, more critically, opening a path to a comfortable professional lifestyle. There’s no doubt that this system produces more worldly and self-aware individuals, but this continual “social turnover” comes at a dear price.

By the time most modern professionals reach the workplace, the only investments they’ve made that have had a lasting return are those placed solely in oneself. Commitments to childhood friendships, local businesses, and community institutions are just moments in time — mere diversions on the road to greater prosperity.

The broad impact is hiding in plain sight. Businesses and communities are increasingly populated by individuals that have been programmed to view “deep roots” as a liability. It’s a remarkable combination of ability and ineptitude. If you asked a group of 20-somethings about their experiences studying abroad, you’d get an earful. By contrast, if you asked that same group about their neighbor’s interests, I’d wager you’d get dead silence.

When you look at the challenges of modern society through the lens of this “social turnover,” things start to make a bit more sense. Can we really be surprised by corporatism, burnout, widespread depression, and social conflict when alienation has become the key ingredient for life advancement?

The solution to this problem may come, oddly enough, from restaurants. One of the more prominent trends in today’s food industry is the “farm-to-table” philosophy — growing and cooking localized food with a keen awareness of how it reaches the customer’s plate.

I think we need to start taking a similar approach to how we cultivate people.

As a society, we need to start celebrating (and creating tangible paths for) individuals that want to apply their time and talents back to the communities that nurtured their development. The result, I believe, would help create a cycle in which business growth sincerely contributes to both community engagement and personal fulfillment.

So, the next time a young person asks you for career advice, maybe try “go local” for a change…

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