In the wake of massive economic disruption, many American communities have been left by the wayside—whether due to technology, trade, or globalization. While rural factories have shuttered and farms have consolidated, job prospects and educational opportunities have abounded in America’s largest urban centers.
Those shifts have brought plenty of benefits through an increased density of smarts, skills, and capital, but they’ve also introduced new risks, from the centralization of power to the fracturing of family and community to the diminishment of national diversity—economic, political, cultural, institutional, and otherwise.
As a result, many have wondered how we might return a bit of balance to American culture and community. How might we restore and reinvigorate cities or regions that are experiencing decline from disruption? Are there ways we might “nudge” our population patterns to be more varied, creative, and intentional—beyond the purely “economical”—resisting blind marches to distant coastal hubs?
For progressives and populists and communitarian conservatives alike, the proposed solutions typically include a menu of government interventions, from trade barriers to wage minimums to subsidies to a range of regulatory constraints. Fortunately, thanks to markets and their many fruits, a range of cultural corrections and improvements are already taking place, with little organized effort or control.
According to Pablo Fuentes, CEO of Proven and host of the Small Business War Stories podcast, we are witnessing a “great re-homing,” wherein American entrepreneurs are finding new freedom, tools, and resources to return to their home communities, bringing plenty of economic growth and human capital in tow. Having now interviewed over 90 small business owners from across the country, Fuentes observes a common thread.
“The most interesting trend I noticed was small business entrepreneurs returning to the communities where they came from,” he explains. “There is an invisible shift happening where people who once wanted to spread their proverbial wings somewhere else are returning to their hometowns to make things happen. This has always been the case to some extent, but I believe that technology is enabling people to be successful in ways that were very difficult or impossible just a decade ago.”
As for what’s driving it, Fuentes observes three leading causes, which represent a mix of economic, social, and moral concerns:
1. Lower Cost of Living
Returning to communities with a lower cost of living gives people a better chance of succeeding by keeping costs low. This can be the difference between getting through a rough patch and going back to working a dead-end job. Because of his skills and popularity on social media platforms, Seth gets customers from far and wide to buy his guitars and his music. He is selling globally, and living locally. You can check him out Monday nights at The Colony, a bar in Tulsa.
2. Community and Belonging
In my experience, [building community] a bit easier in places with a bit of a slower pace of life. When there are fewer competing interests and lower stress, it’s just a little easier to stop and smile at a stranger and to remember the name of the barista who pours your coffee. There is something special about feeling like you’re a part of the community. And it’s a bit easier to make an impact on a smaller community, especially where you grew up.
3. Technology Changes Everything
Technology is enabling people to get more creative about how (and where) they make money. Tools such as Slack, Google Meetings, and good ol’ email allow people to collaborate with remote teams. Craftspeople can get a following on Instagram, sell their wares on Etsy, and work with a number of different on-demand shipping companies to get their products to their final destination. It’s easy to take these things for granted, but many of these tasks were much more difficult, if not impossible, as little as a decade ago.
The development of technology will continue to create flexible opportunities. From distance learning, to even more remote office connectivity, to deeper broadband Internet reach, the future is bright for people with initiative and flexibility. That means more opportunities for people to live where they want and do what they like.
Fuentes’ evidence is mostly anecdotal, but we’ve seen similar stories emerge from a variety of other areas, whether through J.D. Vance’s decision to bring venture capital to the Rust Belt, or journalist Rod Dreher’s journey from the East Coast back to his hometown in Louisiana.
Further, as Joel Kotkin has demonstrated elsewhere, overall growth momentum has shifted from America’s biggest cities to a series of mid-sized metros across the Midwest. Indeed, the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest are not what you’d expect, including Kansas City, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Grand Rapids, and Des Moines. Such growth doesn’t necessarily indicate a “return to home,” but it represents the same freedom and flexibility that Fuentes is beginning to detect.
The extent of all this is still unknown. We may or may not be witnessing a “great re-homing” or a massive urban exit and dispersion. Regardless of the scope and scale, the shifts represent the actions of free people who are freely adapting and moving and collaborating in response to modernity.
If we’re unhappy or unsatisfied with the fruits of economic disruption, we needn’t wait for government protection or artificial stimulus or surface-level tinkering. We, ourselves, already have the freedom and opportunity to reorient our lives and shape our communities according to a broader and deeper set of values, virtues, and priorities.
Image: Migration, Jim O’Neil (CC BY 2.0)