Changing Places: Life-style Migration, Refuge, and the Quest for Potential Selves in the Midwest’s Post-industrial Middle Class

Grand Traverse Region, Northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan [see map of Study Area]

SUMMARY: Middle-class families relocate to areas perceived to offer greater quality of life defined, in part, through enhanced sense of community, place, and opportunities for greater control over the circumstances of both work and family. A study of life-style migrants offers another perspective on contemporary strategies for renegotiating obligations of family, work, and community in the broader context of social and economic changes in America.

This ethnographic research project has involved in-depth interviewing, participant-observation of everyday life, and archival study in the communities of the Grand Traverse region. The project ultimately included over 100 formal participants (defined as individuals with whom I had at least one 1.5 hour long interview). While this number of participants allows me to assess the range of experiences, I worked most closely with a dozen or so families through on-going contact during the project. These families form the more intimate core of this work. It was primarily through my contact with these families in their homes and places of work that this story of life-style migration emerged and took shape. It is within the range of life stories contained in my conversations with all project participants as a wider context and setting that these more detailed visions of life-style migrations unfold.


On a warm and breezy spring day a year following an afternoon spent conceiving this project at my desk back in Ann Arbor, I began chatting with a voluntary corporate refugee named Mark about becoming what some folks now know locally as “The Pie Guy.” We are in his store across from the city fire department and on the main street that runs through Traverse City’s historic downtown positioned at the bottom of Grand Traverse Bay. Mark smiles comfortably as he takes off his apron and emerges from behind the long counter. Beyond him several large racks are filled with cooling pies. Each shelf is labeled with appetizing names like “Old Mission Cherry,” “Lakeshore Berry,” “Farmer’s Market Peach” and “Autumn Harvest Pecan.” His hands are dusted with flour as he presents me with a cup. While we sit sipping our locally roasted coffee and relax in the cozy, cafĂ©-like corner within his busy pie shop, the bells on the door jingle in announcement of each customer’s coming and going. We are surrounded by the rich smells of brewing coffee, baking fruit, and browning crust on this sunny afternoon which, after a lingering winter of cold and snow, seems full of the promise of long summer days. Basking in the warm glow, thoughtful expressions on our faces as we grip our steaming drinks, this life-style migrant begins to explain his story to me.

The story begins as a young man grows up in Michigan’s state capital of Lansing in the 60s and 70s. In 1980 he graduates from Michigan State University in East Lansing looking to find a job in an economy now staggered by the Oil Crisis and the now wide reaching impact of accelerating deindustrialization and a more heavily globalized market. The city of Lansing lies in the swath of industrial areas that span south central Michigan from Detroit to Muskegon an area dominated by the big three auto manufacturers. It is part of a vast stretch of places across the northern tier of Midwest and Northeastern states that comprise what is referred to as the Rust Belt to conjure an image of a well-defined region undergoing decay and decline.

Although parts of these former industrial landscapes are attempting various forms of renaissance, in the early 1980s the harsh reality that former glory was now a bygone era was really just sinking in for most. As with all places in the Belt, Lansing is an area that has had to deal with post-industrial economic restructuring. Like many of his peers, he had anticipated work in the automobile industry which had defined Southern Lower Michigan when he began his studies twenty-five years ago at a time when the mid-seventies recession had only really just begun. Mark earns a degree in engineering. Thinking back to that time, he says:

“There was not much going on in the Midwest in terms of growth. The auto industry was down. Not a lot of opportunity. California was booming … and I had a certain amount of just ‘Hey, I lived twenty years here.’ One of my friends went to work at Oldsmobile [based in Lansing]. Being an auto town, through the generations they just get into Olds and that’s it. You’re done. Man … I couldn’t think of that. I’m going to get into this job and that’s the rest of my life, you know?

Career was generation to generation and these guys would just go in on that line the ones that went to college really didn’t so much but they’d go to work for the State of Michigan or they’d work for another fairly, you know, set company and that’s it …”

Defining oneself by way of a job was the model of the generation of Mark’s father. Now there is neither a guarantee nor expectation for the durability of such a definition because the world of work upon which it had been based appears unstable and unpredictable, more fluid and boundless. These have become the very qualities that are valued in today’s workers. They are asked to be forever learning, adaptable, and multi-tasking in a distinct departure from the ideal worker of the more standardized and regular industrial world of the past. Mark and his wife, Diane, choose to voluntarily drop out of the corporate lifestyle, despite a well paying job and benefits in sunny California, so that they could start their own small business in northern Michigan. Why would they do such a thing?

My research attempts to answer questions like this through an understanding of present-day social and structural transitions obtained by exploring the meaning of relocation for middle-class working families away from metropolitan areas to growing rural communities high in natural amenities. This relocation is a manner of negotiating building tension between personal experience with material demands in pursuit of a livelihood within the flexible, contingent new economy and cultural conventions for the good family and community life as the basis for defining individual character. My fieldwork considers how accounts of life-style migrants are part of a larger moral story of what constitutes the good life when basic social categories and cultural meanings are shifting. I argue that this migration is a continuation of long-standing American traditions of starting over rooted in a belief that we can remake ourselves through sheer force of will. At the same time, it is also a uniquely modern expression as people respond to the challenges and opportunities of a flexible economy based increasingly on contingent work. Their accounts are related to both narratives of travel and conversion where downshifting and displaced corporate workers pass through a period of critical liminality as they attempt to redefine themselves through relocation to places believed to provide necessary refuge and inspiration for the discovery of an inner, authentic self.

This research shows some of the ways that social and structural changes are impacting individuals, families, and communities and how people and places are reacting, devising new strategies for coping or for challenging. I have also connected the present with an understanding of significant historical trends in, for example, local and national patterns of migration. My approach has been to weave the level of the person with mid and macro-levels of social structure and analysis. I have explored the lives of individuals present, past, and imagined through careful observation and lively conversation in the contexts of home and work. Placing these lives in the mid-level is my intimate understanding of the local community as a place I have come to call home. At the macro-level are the social/cultural and economic/structural changes taking places that are a vital part of the context for both individual and community decision-making. It is particularly through looking at place and personal meaning of work life that we see how the individual level is intersected by broader changes that must be interpreted at that point. It is about locating and positioning lives in time and place and enriching our ability to interpret stories through recording and effectively conveying the details of context in the broadest sense.

Community-Based Ethnography in the Mid-West

Lifestyle Migration in the American Middle Class

“Do you get told what the good life is, or do you figure it out for yourself”?

Posed by a middle-aged lifestyle migrant who left a corporate career, this question invokes the theme of Opting for Elsewhere that emerges from stories of people who chose relocation as a way of redefining themselves and reordering work, family, and personal priorities. This is a book about the impulse to start over. The accounts presented involve new expressions of old dreams, understandings, and ideals. Whether downshifting from stressful careers or the victims of downsizing from jobs lost in a surge of economic restructuring, lifestyle migrants seek refuge in places that seem to resonate with an idealized, potential self. Choosing the option of elsewhere and moving as a means of remaking self through sheer force of will are basic facets of American character forged in its history as a developing nation of immigrants with a seemingly ever-expanding frontier. Stories told here are parts of a larger moral story about what constitutes the good life at a time of economic uncertainty coupled with shifting social categories and cultural meanings. Brian Hoey provides an evocative illustration of the ways these sweeping changes impact people and the places that they live and work as well as how both react—devising strategies for either coping with or challenging the status quo. This stirring portrait of starting over in the heartland of America will initiate fruitful discussion about where we are going next as an emerging postindustrial society.

Available from Vanderbilt University Press.

Opting for Elsewhere cover