Monday, April 19, 2010

The Speed of Life

Today I’m going to do something a little different. I usually don’t tackle personal, philosophical issues on my blog, but this is a topic that I’ve thought a lot about and it might help me to form a cohesive article about it.

I was born and raised in Ashland, a small town of around 30,000 and declining, in eastern Kentucky. If you have ever traveled on I-64 you can identify the town by the refinery that greets you as you descend from West Virginia. The town’s largest employers when I was growing up were Ashland Inc. and AK Steel which have subsequently either a.) merged and moved or b.) closed forever. It’s a sad fact of life that many towns who depended on industrial and manufacturing jobs now face.

Needless to say, the prospects for career advancement there are limited. This has contributed to what I would label a crisis of brain-drain, where the highest-caliber students leave the area for demanding academic programs. I’ve found that most people’s college connections lead them to jobs close to their alma mater so they stay within a limited radius of their college. The important point is that the highest performers don’t ever move back to eastern Kentucky, because there are no opportunities that bring them back.

Going off-track for a bit – Facebook offers me the opportunity to observe the lives of the people and friends that I’ve made over the years, from Kentucky and the liberal arts college I attended. It’s sort of a people-watching experience, only creepier because it’s online. The main observation that I can make with is that the people who stayed in Ashland are more likely to a.) be married and b.) have children than those that I went to college with (just for reference, I am 24 which is where I am speaking from). My dad says that we all need a ruler to measure against and his ruler was his parents – his point was that he got married at 23 and had his first child (me) at 29. Taking this further, perhaps what I’m observing is the juxtaposition of these two widely-different community rulers at work, where the parents and community members have previously exhibited this behavior and it’s a situation in which history is repeating itself.

But this explanation doesn’t fully convince me. Let me return to where we jumped off track: the people who remain in Ashland are left with limited opportunities in the service-oriented economy. They are left with the option of searching for a different raison d'être other than a rewarding career or resigning themselves to a life of drugs and alcohol, which unfortunately, strikes far too many people in the area. The pursuit of the former most commonly results in pregnancy, which has the side-benefit of (potentially) locking-down a male partner. In a region where people top out their potential incomes quickly, obesity is endemic, and life expectancies are lower than the national average, the potential of starting adulthood early cannot be overstated enough.

Compared with my current, urban location in DC, the difference in lifestyles of twenty-somethings couldn’t be more stark. Here, and observing my college friends who have since spread out, it is all about your career – getting a good first job, performing at a high level, and seeking promotions. Dating takes a backseat as a generation of children of divorce tries to avoid the sins of their fathers. Either that or they want to be secure before they settle down. Emerging from college in the midst of the most severe recession in decades has ingrained the notion that security must be attained or you risk putting not just yourself, but your entire, burgeoning family in jeopardy. I’ve heard it both ways. But mating isn’t even on these people’s radar screens – most people would describe it as a “long term goal”, something 5 or more years out (late 20s/early 30s).

As educated people delay family formation in order to pursue career goals while those in eastern Kentucky choose to begin their family lives earlier, income inequality between these two groups will rise and continue on into the next generation. The educated families will have more resources to invest in their children, providing a higher standard of living which has numerous positive benefits in terms of life development. The Ashland families will not have the same level of resources and so it will continue to propagate the cycle.

It’s a very sad situation, but I have many friends and family members who live in Ashland. I hope to return to Kentucky someday and the plan is to found a private equity firm to invest in local businesses. I was blessed enough to grow up in a safe, friendly town with a good public school. As a result I feel a JFK-like obligation to go back because “to those that much has been given, much is expected”. And make some money. And live closer to my family.