Andy Crouch, who is slowly establishing himself as the closest Christian equivalent to Malcolm Gladwell, lists the top 10 cultural trends from the past decade.

It’s a brilliant bit of analysis, especially his mention of informality.  Yet I think number two, place, needs a little work.  He writes:

Therefore, oddly enough after a decade of wild growth in invisible telecommunications, place mattered more in 2010 than it did in 2000. Travel and transport remained basically flat throughout the decade. Total vehicle miles driven, while an impressive 3 billion miles in 2010, were only up from 2.7 billion miles in 2000, a period during which the population increased from 288 to 318 million—meaning the average American drove less in 2010 than in 2000. At 9:45 tomorrow morning there will be roughly 4,500 commercial flights in the air, just as there were on 9:45 the morning of 11 September 2001—no change despite a decade of economic and population growth. And mobility, the hallmark of twentieth-century United States culture, declined throughout the decade and reached a post-war low in 2010, with less than 10% of American households changing their address.

Notice that he compares 2010 with 2000 to make his case, while suggesting that we have had a “decade of economic and population growth.”  While it’s true we’ve had population growth, fertility rates in America have stayed at replacement rate, suggesting that most of the population growth was from immigrants–many of which, though by no means all, are lower-paid employees and hence have less discretionary income for travel or building nicer homes.

Additionally, comparing address changes between 2000 and 2010 as evidence that Americans want to be more rooted is a bit misleading.  The reality is that 2000 was right at the beginning of the housing boom, but in 2010 most people couldn’t move even if they wanted to.  Their houses were underwater or they were out of work.

As for economic growth….here’s the S&P 500 chart from 1998 (to give you a little context for how people were feeling in 2000) to 2010.

Even though the market has mostly recovered, adjusted for inflation most people have lost money.  Add negligible or negative job growth despite the increase in population and it feels a lot like we’re only treading water.

The market isn’t the economy, of course.  But it is indicative of how much discretionary income people have, discretionary income which often goes toward travel and new homes.  What’s more, 2009 was so catastrophic that even though the market recovered in 2010, most people didn’t feel as though they had any more money from it.  And when push comes to shove, that feeling of being squeezed is going to force people to cancel trips or stay in their houses when they might otherwise rather move.

Booming economies make mobility easier and more attractive.  And while I hope Andy is right that “the 21st century dream seems to be to put down deeper roots,” I suspect that dream has not only started to become a reality because the harsh realities of an economic downturn have forced it on an unhappy public.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. These are all great points and challenges (similar questions were raised back when I wrote my rather optimistic essay about the effects of the Great Deleveraging a couple years ago).

    However, I’m not sure that the immigration effect doesn’t cut quite the other way. If American population growth has come from immigration, with “native” fertility only at replacement rates, then the decline in household mobility excluding immigrants must be even more pronounced. Obviously, however, immigration (which perhaps should have been a candidate for one of my ten trends) greatly complicates the narrative that “Americans” are just staying put.

    And it’s true of course that the stock market (and median incomes) went sideways in the 2000s. However, there was real economic growth (from roughly $10T to roughly $12T in GDP/annum–in 2000 dollars). It’s striking to me that overall that was accompanied by significantly less mobility and an unmeasurable but to me undeniable new cultural emphasis on place, especially among elites who in the 1970s and 1980s were devotedly mobile.

    That said, I do agree that much recent decline in mobility was compelled by a lack of opportunity to move; however, the longer “secular” (i.e., unrelated to the economic cycle) trend was also strongly away from mobility, and that decline in mobility continued even during the height of the mid-2000s economic “boom” (such as it was).

    Perhaps the real point is that even if people are making a virtue of necessity (which I grant may largely be the case), that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t pursuing real virtues, and discovering the real satisfactions they bring.

    Reply

  2. Andy,

    Thanks for the gracious words and the thoughtful response. Your point about immigration is an interesting one, and I’ll have to consider it further.

    That said, the GDP growth is true, but as you know it’s been accompanied by a corresponding rise in consumer debt which makes me wonder how much of that GDP has actually been transferred into an increase in wealth for families (which is why I picked on the stock market and job growth, not GDP). I too was hopeful for the Great Deleveraging, but the deleveraging never happened–it was simply transferred into governmental debt in order to stabilize things (this was Bill Gross’ of Pimco’s argument throughout for increasing the government debt).

    That said, I completely agree with you regarding elites and the new emphasis on place. And you’re far better positioned than I am to judge the secular trends. I’d be curious to read more about that, though.

    And I agree that making a virtues born from necessity are still virtues. I’m just not (yet) convinced that non-elites are discovering virtues’ joys.

    matt

    Reply

    1. Regardless of whether “place mattered more in 2010 than it did in 2000,” place should always matter because of (1) the Incarnation, where God chose to dwell among a particular people at a particular time in a particular place, and (2) because of our social constitutions and the concomitant need for real – not virtual – community, where we’re called to the risky business of neighbor-love. I’ve been challenged by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. He reflects upon St. Anthony’s counsel, “In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.” Why should any of us stay put? In his review of the book, Ragan Sutterfield writes: “Staying is so important because it forces us to face the real problems in our lives—the problems we can’t mask with new friends, a new job, a new house, or a new car. Staying shows us that what we need isn’t another church or a town where people ‘get us’ or a new adventure. What we need is to face ourselves and stay still long enough for God to change us.”

      P.S. The term “non-elites” should be eliminated from the vocabulary. It’s as almost as derogatory as “hoi polloi,” “common people,” and “great unwashed.”

      Reply

      1. Christopher,

        Yes, but an abstract discussion on the merits of place (on which I knew Andy and I would agree) wasn’t the point.

        Also, non-elites is only derogatory if you think elites means “better.” I don’t, ergo I don’t think the converse is an insult.

        Happily non-elite,

        Matt

        Reply

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Anderson and Alltop Christianity. Alltop Christianity said: The Unrealized Dream of Place: A Reply to Andy Crouch: Andy Crouch, who is slowly establishing himself as the c… http://bit.ly/fy0oQp […]

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *