THE QUESTION OF WHERE
I’m not easily shaken. I like to think of myself as a guy who can take just about anything in stride. But when I was asked to appear on the Colbert Report in July 2007, I felt my stomach drop. Just a few months prior, I’d told my wife, Rana, how nerve-racking it would be to do an interview with Stephen Colbert. It’s the one show that puts butterflies in my stomach. His technique of disarming mindless punditry through smart and edgy commentary is brilliant, but tough to fend off. He has an uncanny ability to stay in character—that now-famous bloviating right-wing talking head who grills his guests at a rapid-fire tempo, leaving them dumbstruck. I’m a regular watcher of the show and big fan, so I’ve seen how embarrassing it can be for guests who can’t keep pace. But after some persuading from Rana and my team, I decided to give it a shot.
I took along some backup. Rana, my colleague David Miller, and his wife, Emily, all accompanied me on the high-speed Acela train from Washington, D.C., where we then lived, to New York and eventually to the studio. Waiting in the green room, I was pumped up by energizing conversation with my friends and some Colbert Report staff. We were quite the contrast to Stephen’s other guest, Senator Ben Nelson, who was prepping with his Hill staffers across the hall. At one point, the producer had to close the door to our green room to contain all the noise we were making.
As the minutes ticked by, my heart began racing. I started to sweat, and I couldn’t help pacing the dressing room and the hall outside. I felt so nervous that when an assistant producer came over to brief me on the segment, I was literally speechless. That may have made them doubt their choice of guests. Stephen came in quickly to say hello. He reminded me that while he was going to stay in character, I should focus on playing it straight and getting my ideas across. After makeup, they sent me out into the studio. The whole place felt electric. Then the music cranked up, blaring the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Great choice. It brought back the heart-thumping feeling I’d had long ago, playing lead guitar with my band.
It’s now or never, I said to myself. I planted my feet, took several deep breaths, and with the music pumping, found my zone. I reminded myself to have fun, and to make sure Stephen and the audience knew I was in on the joke. It wasn’t hard to relax during Stephen’s introduction to the segment. I was busting a gut just listening to him start:
“For all the good news, there was some bad news last week. The National Association of Realtors forecasted that the slump in home sales and prices would be deeper and last longer than previously expected, all the way into 2008 . . .
“But a disturbing new study has found a solution to the housing slump: Live next to gay people. The study’s author measured changes in income and property values using something called the Bohemian-Gay Index.
“Now while that may sound like another name for the San Francisco phone book, folks, it is BAAAD NEWS! This study found that artistic, bohemian, and gay populations increase housing values in the neighborhoods and communities they inhabit. According to that, I guess people these days want a house with a view of some goateed beatnik playing his bongos while he smokes a clove cigarette and chisels a sculpture of k. d. lang.
“The theory is that tolerant communities, where homosexuals are likely to reside, nurture an open-minded culture of creativity, which can lead to innovations like Google, or YouTube, or ShirtlessHunksBaggingGroceries.com.
“Well, personally, I don’t believe that the value of my twelvebedroom Tudor will go up just because a couple of opticians move in next door. Oh yeah, a lot of opticians are gay. . . .” He introduced me to the audience, and then we were off. “Should I be following gay people around to see where they’re living?” Stephen asked.
When I answered, “Yes,” he shot back, “Good. I do it already. Now I have a reason.”
After three to four minutes of back and forth, he ended the segment with this zinger. “You know what I think, sir? I think you are a gay, bohemian artist who just wants to sell his house.”
To which I replied, trying as best I could to keep from laughing, “You know, we just sold our house on Sunday, my wife and I, to move to Toronto!”
Colbert had zeroed in on a controversial finding of my research: the relationship between housing prices and concentrations of gays and bohemians. Is it possible that a single factor—like a certain group of people —could make or break an area’s housing market, much less determine its economic potential or its residents’ happiness? True to his character, Colbert scoffed at the idea that he should be following gay populations around in order to find the best housing markets or most creative labor markets.
But the point had been made. Where we live is increasingly important to every facet of our lives. We owe it to ourselves to think about the relationship between place and our economic future, as well as our personal happiness, in a more systematic —if different— way.
The Biggest Decision of All
If someone asked you to list life’s biggest decisions, what would you say? If you’re like most people, you’d probably start with two things.
The first, I call the “what factor.” Most of us will say that one of the key decisions in life is figuring out what you want to do for your career. Even if money can’t buy happiness, many people believe that doing work you love is likely to give you a prosperous and fulfilling life. My father drilled that notion into me.
“Richard,” he would say, “you don’t have to end up in a factory like me, working hard and punching a clock for modest pay. You need to be a lawyer or doctor, so you can do something important and make good money.”
Many would add that an essential prerequisite to financial and career success is getting a good education and attending the right schools. Graduate from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, or Princeton, so goes the theory, and the rest will take care of itself. A good education is the means to a great job, a solid financial future, and a happy life. My parents, like so many others, were education fanatics. Even though they struggled to make ends meet, they put my brother Robert and me in Catholic school—which required not only tuition but also regular contributions to the lo cal parish—and impressed upon us day and night the importance of studying hard, getting good grades, and going to college. They inspected our report cards and gave us rewards for good marks. Like so many other hardworking and devoted parents of modest means, they saw education as the key to upward mobility.
Others, meanwhile, will argue that while jobs, money, and schooling are surely important, the most critical decision in life is picking the right life partner—someone who will support you in all your endeavors and love you unconditionally along the way. Those who study human psychology agree: Loving relationships, their studies find, are key to a happy life.1 My mother knew this intuitively. She turned down many college-educated suitors to marry my dad, a factory worker and World War II veteran with an eighth-grade education. “Richard,” she would say, “it was the best decision of my life by far. Sure, some of those other guys made more money. But love is what is really important. I was madly in love with your father every day of my entire life.”
Without question, both of those decisions—the what and the who—mean a great deal to our lives. But there is another decision that has an equal, if not greater, effect on our economic future, happiness, and overall life outcome. The question of where.
Maybe this seems so obvious that people overlook it. Finding the right place is as important as—if not more important than— finding the right job or partner because it not only influences those choices but also determines how easy or hard it will be to correct mistakes made along the way. Still, few of us actually look at a place that way. Perhaps it’s because so few of us have the understanding or mental framework necessary to make informed choices about our location.
The place we choose to live affects every aspect of our being. It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our children and families. People are not equally happy everywhere, and some places do a better job of providing a high quality of life than others. Some places offer us more vibrant labor markets, better career prospects, higher real estate appreciation, and stronger investment and earnings opportunities. Some places offer more promising mating markets. Others are better environments for raising children.
Place also affects how happy we are in other, less palpable ways. It can be an island of stability in a sea of uncertainty and risk. Jobs end. Relationships break up. Choosing the right place can be a hedge against life’s downsides. I hate to dwell on the negative, but you need to think about this. It’s always terrible to lose a job, even worse to suffer a breakup with a significant other. As bad as those are, however, they are substantially worse if you also happen to live somewhere with few options in the job market or the mating market. It’s exponentially easier to get back on your feet when your location has a vibrant economy with lots of jobs to choose from, or a lot of eligible single people in your age range to date.
The point is, where we live is a central life factor that affects all the others—work, education, and love—follow. It can make or break existing work arrangements and personal relationships. It can open new doors. And regardless of what kind of life we envision for ourselves—whether we aspire to make millions, have a family, or live the way of a bachelor—choosing where to live is a decision we all must make at least once. A good number of us will make it multiple times. The average American moves once every seven years. More than 40 million people relocate each year; 15 million make significant moves of more than 50 or 100 miles.2
The stakes are high, and yet, when faced with the decision of where to call home, most of us are not prepared to make the right choice. If you ask most people how they got to the place they live now, they’ll say they just ended up there. They stayed close to family or friends, they got a job there, or more commonly, they followed an old flame. Some don’t even see that there’s a choice to be made at all.
Still, the miracle of our modern age is that we do have a choice. For the first time ever, a huge number of us have the freedom and economic means to choose our place. That means we have an incredible opportunity to find the place that fits us best. But this remarkable freedom forces us to decide among a large number of options. Today there are many types of communities out there, all with something different to offer.
The key is to find a place that fits you—one that makes you happy and enables you to achieve your life goals. For some people, career and wealth are big components of their happiness, but that is far from everybody. Many of us know people who left good jobs and prosperous careers in law or engineering to do something they truly love. Others move back to their hometown after college to help run the family business or to be closer to family and friends. These people usually know very well what they are giving up, and they make their choices knowingly. They prefer family and community to wealth. And many people are very happy where they are. These people may well know the real value of community better than others. What they value about place is the opportunity to live their lives in the towns and among the people already familiar to them.
The thing to remember is that when it comes to place, like most other important things in life, we can’t have it all. There are real tradeoffs to be made. Many, if not most, people who move for their careers will give up the joy of being near family and lifelong friends. Those of us who choose to stay close to family and friends may give up economic opportunity.
Before I go any further, I want you to think hard about the following questions.
- How do you like the place you’re living now? Is it somewhere you really want to be? Does it give you energy? When you walk out onto the street—or the country lane—in the morning, does it fill you with inspiration, or stress? Does it allow you to be the person you really want to be? Are you achieving your personal goals? Is it a place you would recommend to your relatives and friends?
- Have you thought about moving? If so, what are the top three places on your radar screen? What do you like about them? Specifically, what do you think they offer you? How would your life be different in these places?
- Have you ever sat down and compared where you’re living now to those places? Honestly, have you given this a fraction of the thought and energy you’ve given to your job and career prospects, or if you’re single, to your dating life?
If you have, you are part of a very small minority. For such an important life decision, it’s remarkable how few of us explore all the options or sufficiently ponder all of these questions. Maybe that is because we’re not fully informed. It’s a mantra of the age of globalization that where we live doesn’t matter. We can work as efficiently from a ski chalet in Aspen or a country house in Provence as from an office in Silicon Valley. It doesn’t make a difference as long as we have wireless and a cell phone.
But impressive new technologies notwithstanding, the socalled death of place is hardly a new story. First the railroad revolutionized trade and transport as never before. Then the telephone made everyone feel connected and closer. The automobile was invented, then the airplane, and then the World Wide Web—perhaps the quintessential product of a globalized world. All of these technologies have carried the promise of a boundless world. They would free us from geography, allowing us to move out of crowded cities and into lives of our own bucolic choosing. Forget the past, when cities and civilizations were confined to fertile soil, natural ports, or raw materials. In today’s high-tech world, we are free to live wherever we want. Place, according to this increasingly popular view, is irrelevant.
It’s a compelling notion, but it’s wrong. Today’s key economic factors—talent, innovation, and creativity—are not distributed evenly across the global economy. They concentrate in specific locations. It’s obvious how major new innovations in communications and transportation allow economic activity to spread out all over the world. What’s less obvious is the incredible power of what I call the clustering force. In today’s creative economy, the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people. New ideas are generated and our productivity increases when we locate close to one another in cities and regions. The clustering force makes each of us more productive, which in turns makes the places we inhabit much more productive, generating great increases in output and wealth.
Because of the clustering force, cities and regions have become the true engines of economic growth. No wonder these locations continue to expand. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. In the United States, more than 90 percent of all economic output is produced in metropolitan regions, while just the largest five metro regions account for 23 percent of it. And cities and their surrounding metropolitan corridors are morphing into massive mega-regions, home to tens of millions of people producing hundreds of billions and in some cases trillions of dollars in economic output. Place remains the central axis of our time—more important to the world economy and our individual lives than ever before.
As the most mobile people in human history, we are fortunate to have an incredibly diverse menu of places—in our own countries and around the world—from which to choose. That’s important because each of us has different needs and preferences. Luckily, places differ as much as we do. Some have thriving job markets, others excel at the basics well, like education and safety. Some are better for singles, others for families. Some are more about work, some play. Some lean conservative, others liberal. They all cater to different types, and each has its own personality, its own soul. The different personalities of places seem like hard variables to get a handle on—but it’s not impossible. We’ve mapped them, and you can find the maps in Chapter 11.
It’s not just that places’ personalities are different. What we need from a place also shifts with each stage of our life. When we’re young, just out of school and single, many of us want a place that’s stimulating, offering lots of jobs and opportunities for career advancement, great nightlife, and a vibrant “mating market” filled with single people to meet and date. When we get a bit older, and certainly when we marry and have children, our priorities change. We want a place that offers good schools, safe streets, and better lives for our families. And when the children go off to college and leave the house, our needs and interests change yet again.
At each of these turning points, and at many others along the way, a growing number of us have the opportunity to choose a place that truly fits our needs.
But how do we begin to think about that choice? Some fifty years ago, the brilliant economist Charles Tiebout outlined a powerful framework for identifying the tradeoffs involved in choosing our place.3 Tiebout argued that communities specialize in the bundles of services or “public goods” they offer—such as education, police, fire, parks, and what not. Different bundles of services and different qualities of services come with a price, paid as taxes. So when we choose a place, we’re not only selecting a physical location—we’re also picking the bundle of goods and services that will be available to us there. As Tiebout famously argued, people will “vote with their feet,” selecting the particular community which offers goods and services compatible with their particular preferences and needs. Some people prefer great schools and are prepared to pay for them. Single people, or those whose kids are out of the house, will value schools much less: They are more likely to desire nice restaurants, world-class beaches, great golf courses, and lower taxes. Tiebout’s model provides a basic logic for thinking about what we value in our communities. When given a wide range of choices, we need to identify our key needs and priorities and then find a place that meets them at a price we are willing and able to pay.
Speaking of price: The place we live is one of the biggest ticket items of our lives. Some people want the thrill, excitement, and opportunity that big cities like London or New York offer. But understand that those things can come with a hefty price tag. Living in these cities, and others such as San Francisco, Amsterdam, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, and Sydney, has become extraordinarily expensive. People who work in finance may find that the cost of living in New York or London is offset by the economic success they can achieve there. The same might be said of filmmakers who choose to move to Los Angeles or fashion designers who need to be in Milan or Paris—and other places at the top of the pecking order in their given industry.
But what if you work in a different kind of field where there is no go-to location, or if you’re the kind of person who simply doesn’t aspire to be at the very pinnacle of your industry. Then there are plenty of other, lovely places out there where you can live for a fraction of the amount. It’s absolutely essentially that you weigh your career goals against the quality of life you’d like to achieve.
I wrote this book to help you pick the place that’s right for you. I’ll share with you more than twenty-five years of personal research, as well as the work and findings of many others.4 I’ve structured my advice around three key ideas.
- Despite all the hype over globalization and the “flat world,” place is actually more important to the global economy than ever before.
- Places are growing more diverse and specialized—from their economic makeup and job market to the quality of life they provide and the kinds of people that live in them.
- We live in a highly mobile society, giving most of us more say over where we live.
Taken together, these three facts mean that where you choose to live will greatly affect everything from your finances and job options to your friends, your potential mate, and your children’s future.
The first part of this book tackles the big picture. It looks at how and why place continues to matter to the global economy. It provides maps and statistics that chart the reality of globalization and the function of mega-regions, the new economic units of what I call the “spiky world.”
The second part addresses how where you live affects your economic situation—the new realities of the job market, trends in the housing market, real estate appreciation, all of which are real pocketbook issues. It shows how economic advantage accrues in some places more than others, details the new migration of talented and skilled people to a small set of regions, and documents the forces driving the ups and downs of the housing market. It also describes the trend toward the clustering of jobs—high-tech in Silicon Valley or Austin, finance in New York, filmmaking in Hollywood, music in Nashville.
The third part confronts what is perhaps the biggest trade-off we need to consider when picking a place to live: how to balance our career goals against our lifestyle and other needs. It looks at the relationship between where we live and our ability to live happy, fulfilled lives. It draws from a large-scale survey of 28,000 people that I conducted with the Gallup Organization. This study, the Place and Happiness Survey, found that location is as relevant to a person’s well-being as are his or her job, finances, and interpersonal relationships.
The fourth part looks at how our needs and preferences for where we live evolve and change as we go through three of life’s main stages—when we’re young and single, married with children, and as empty-nesters and after our children have left the house. This section features new rankings my team and I developed of the best places for each of these main stages of your life.
The last chapter gets practical. It provides the basic tools you need to identify the place that’s best for you. Even if you’re ecstatic about where you currently live, this chapter will help you better understand what you truly desire and need. If you’re thinking about a move, it provides a detailed guide of what to look for and where to look for it. By the end of this book, you’ll better understand the critical role of place in today’s global economy, and how to maximize your chances for a happy and fulfilling life by picking the place that’s right for you.