Staying Put

My family is recuperating this week from a wedding held here at the lake-certainly the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever been to.

There was an old barn involved and pastel roses and elegant food and beautiful dresses and lots of sunshine-and there was family.

Family from everywhere crept across the map and walked across the field and through the barn doors to kiss the cheek of my niece and her new husband.

I loved seeing everyone.

It got me thinking about family-about how in this day and age pieces of our families are scattered like leaves across the landscape and how it takes something like a wedding to rake them all up and pile them at our feet.

I don’t like that very much, but there is so much about the pressures of our modern world that I’m not genuinely fond of.

Once upon a time, generations used to reside under one roof and everyone played a part in raising the children and caring for their elderly and making life work somehow.

For most of America’s history, we didn’t feel tethered to the place where we were born.

I remember feeling sorry for my peers that stayed in Buffalo after high school while the rest of us ventured far and wide for college or job opportunities. Those of us who became vagabonds didn’t want to be “stuck” in our hometowns.

But like other facets of the American life, the trend to flee town once school ends might be changing. For one thing, the high-paying jobs once guaranteed in the big cities aren’t a guarantee anymore, and young adults are sometimes unwilling to give up the social and economic networks they’ve developed in their hometowns. Having to rebuild relationships, find a new bank, a new doctor and lay a new foundation might not always be worth the risk since job layoffs have risen steadily in the past 10 years.

Here’s what we know about moving in America: We’re not doing it like we used to. The share of single people and families moving between states is the lowest in half a century. People are starting to ask themselves now if moving away is actually “better.” And here’s an interesting statistic: The likelihood of 20-somethings moving to another state has dropped well over 40 percent since the 1980s, according to calculations based on Census Bureau data. We know that children raised during recessions tend to take fewer financial and job risks and that’s part of the reason they are staying put.

A Harvard poll that surveys thousands of young people each year has found that 20-somethings are looking to stay connected to their hometowns and help build stronger communities with their presence. They’re investing their futures in the place they were born more often.

Recent articles in the New York Times and other publications have touted this as a bad thing-lamenting the fact that the Jack Kerouac days of youth are over. After all, the phrase “go west young man” is part of our cultural myth. It is embedded in our DNA as Americans to find greener pastures, to go to the moon, to board leaky boats and discover new worlds. We’re supposed to be restless and rootless.

I’m not so sure the critics are right. There are countless upsides for American small towns and communities when they avoid the “brain drain” from having their young adults pick up and leave after school ends.

What does the word “home” mean, exactly?

According to a Pew poll, nearly four-in-10 American adults say the place they consider home isn’t where they’re living now. More than a quarter say it is the place where they were born and raised.

Here’s what I love: That same poll shows that a majority of people who stayed in their hometowns say that a feeling of belonging was the major reason for staying put.

What do we give up-and take away from our communities-when we believe that home is just merely a house we live in? The longer we stay put, the more we invest in helping to make our local businesses and localities thrive. We join the PTA; we keep our church pews full; we drop off our dry cleaning down the street; we tend to our neighbors.

Why is leaving home something every young American adult is expected to do?

American political writer Bill Kaufman wrote about “placeism” after he happily moved back to his hometown of Batavia after giving Washington, D.C., a whirl. He defines placeism as the unreasoned love of a particular place.

He once told an audience of Batavians during a speech that the luckiest among them were those who had never left.

I’m beginning to think he’s right.