What are Relos?
Relos are workers and families who are frequently relocated for the breadwinner’s job. They are serial, long distance movers. The word probably originated among suburban real estate agents who specialize in catering to Relos.
There’s nothing particularly new to being a rootless soldier, or diplomat, or preacher, or businessman or woman. For decades, IBM employees have said the initials stand for “I’ve Been Moved.” What’s new is the growth of the numbers of corporate Relos associated with the growth of the global economy. As companies—American and foreign—compete, they need people to carry their banner and build business far from home.
Company recruiters spot potential Relos early, leaving college. They put them on career tracks that require periodic relocation to learn the company ropes. A recruit might start out as an assistant operations manager at a Procter and Gamble laundry detergent plant in Nebraska and be promoted in a year or two to a toothpaste plant in Missouri. Some drop out or settle into jobs where they can stay in one place. But many of the most promising keep moving. Marriott and Hilton hotel managers, for example, or Wal-Mart and JC Penney store managers can bound from city to city, in the U.S. and abroad, taking on ever bigger hotels and stores. Some become top officers and make their last moves, typically in their late forties and early fifties, to their companies’ headquarters. Chief executives of some major companies—Boeing and Coca-Cola, for example—landed the top job after moving seven or eight times.
So do you think Relos have a new version of the American Dream?
Relos want the American dream’s comfortable home, a couple of cars and maybe a boat, a vacation at the beach, a good pension, and similar opportunities for their kids. They’re well paid. But they give up another feature of the dream—the sense of belonging somewhere. They put the dream on wheels, so they relinquish their ties to a place. Without ties to a place, resourceful Relos try to find a new place on the digital highway. They build communities of family and friends with iPhones, Twitter, Facebook, email, and Skype. In that way they may be writing a new definition of place.
And what’s a Reloville?
As for “Reloville,” I made the word up. In traveling around the country and analyzing Census data for cities and towns, I found that these serial movers tended to roost in and around the big-city suburbs—many outside Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Charlotte, and Raleigh—where their companies have built headquarters, branch and regional offices, plants, stores, research labs, and customer service facilities. Residents of Cary, North Carolina, a Reloville near Raleigh, joke that Cary is an acronym for “Containment Area for Dislocated Yankees.” Once these Relos make up around 15 or 20 percent of a community’s population they exert disproportionate influence on the character of the community. They make it a Reloville.
How do these Relovilles fit into the community and what to do they want from their communities?
Though a minority of the population, they tend to drive the local economy. Builders, bankers, real estate firms, decorators, new car dealers, and furniture chains cater more to Relos shuttling through town than to families who buy a house once and settle down. Builders build houses that Relos want most—those they can move into fast and sell fast when they go, typically to another Relo. The houses become models for the entire community. So from Seattle to Charlotte, Relo subdivisions and Relo houses are often cut from the same patterns to ease a family’s adjustment to a move.
Relos’ desire for familiar surroundings—conferring a comforting illusion of not having moved—applies to other features of Reloville. Shopping districts and malls look and feel alike. You see few homegrown, indigenous stores or restaurants in Reloville. Shopping strips are lined with the same national names, selling the same brands. Relovilles have an Applebee’s, for example, with the same familiar Bourbon Street steak and hot fudge sundae.
Do Relos participate in their temporary community?
Except for schools and kids’ sports leagues, Relos don’t invest in their town du jour. Knowing they’ll be moving soon, they don’t contribute to, say, building a local museum. They know they won’t be around when it opens. They don’t vote in local elections. The Relo breadwinner knows the way to the airport and the golf course, but not to city hall.
There’s one exception to Relos’ indifference to community affairs: Relovilles tend to have their state’s top rated public schools because Relos require them. In moving from town to town, they can’t rely on deep family and community ties to help steer their rootless kids into productive adult lives—like a friend who will give them a summer job, or the lifelong neighbor who will write a college recommendation. To compensate, Relo mothers volunteer at schools, work as substitute teachers, and join PTAs. Fathers typically coach kids sports—especially soccer. A kid who makes a soccer team in Plano, Texas, can hit the ground running when he moves to Geneva.
What are the sacrifices of living the Relo lifestyle?
Frequent relocation can be exhilarating for Relo breadwinners—most of whom are still men—but difficult for Relo wives. To follow their husbands, they abandon or postpone careers. Relo wives spoke with concern about the effects of rootlessness, loss, and loneliness, both for their kids and for themselves. “Well, I don’t have a best friend,” many would say. It can take years to make a best friend—someone in whom they can confide anything. They didn’t have the time or opportunity for that. It was hard enough carrying the burden of settling their families—finding homes, schools, doctors, and churches, and arranging a home—only to have to start all over again somewhere else.
Of course, some Relo families relish moving, especially those sent to fun or exotic places like Paris or Bangkok. Bounding from culture to culture, some families thrive on learning languages and seeing great sites. One eighteen-year-old in the book spoke five languages by the time she entered Stanford University in California. Some kids, the hardiest, say they seize upon a move to a new school to reinvent themselves. But some families—oil company workers, for example—land in insolated, if affluent, housing compounds of the North African desert. Others lose ground, falling back in school as they try to adapt to new cliques and curriculums.
You follow many Relo families in your book. Can you tell us how you met them and learned about their experiences?
Early on, I’d not heard of Relos. I had gone to the suburbs of Atlanta in 2004 to look into aspects of class in America—the rich and the poor, the well and not so well educated, movers and shakers, leaders and followers. I had no clear sense of where to look, so I began with one suburb—Alpharetta. Driving around on a Saturday, I found people with time to talk at garage sales. I found grist for my work on class, but I found something else, too. Many of these people were moving. “We’re Relos,” they said. There, and later in towns north of Dallas and south of Denver, I met more Relos at garage sales and at holiday fairs, on the sidelines of soccer and baseball games—all places where people would take time to talk. I met perhaps a hundred families, and hardly any turned me away. I found that most people like to talk, especially about themselves. With periodic visits back to the towns and email exchanges with some families for as long as four years, I watched their lives as Relos unfold.
How has the recession changed the Relo lifestyle?
Relos were hardly immune to the economy’s collapse over the last couple of years. Like home building, automobile sales, and the unemployment rate, relocation rolls with the economy’s ups and downs. Employers cut back hiring Relos just as they do with other workers, and postpone promotions requiring moves. Some big employers of Relos are ailing, including the American International Group and General Motors. Those corporations shut down offices where they employed Relos. But no healthy company with hard-won business away from home is going to abandon those markets, pull back their engineers, sales people, and financial managers, and risk losing their customers to hungry competitors. Of about twenty Relo families I followed most closely, and whose stories I recount in the book, the promotions and moves of a few were stalled, and a couple dropped out. But not one lost a job.
Relovilles are actually doing comparatively well in the recession?
Relovilles have weathered the recession better than most communities. Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas that were struck by the collapse in home prices have large populations of newcomers, but relatively few Relos. Because Relos are well paid and work for major companies, few of them turned to the subprime mortgages that have led to many foreclosures. They could make substantial down payments on new houses from the proceeds from selling their last homes. And to assure that they would move when needed, many employers agree to buy the homes for no less than their Relos paid. Employers, as a result, often did get stuck selling homes at a loss. And many whittled away Relos’ benefits, like subsidies to buy for upscale cars in new posts, and to pay for nannies, housekeepers, and drivers, private school tuitions, and first class air travel. Still, they had to take good enough care of their prized Relos to discourage them from jumping ship to a competitor.
Overall, the toll on Relovilles has been relatively small. Standard & Poors just published its index of home prices for March. Nationwide, they plunged 19 percent from the year before. Around cities with few Relos or global employers—notably Phoenix, Las Vegas, and San Francisco—they fell more than 30 percent. But among these and seventeen other cities that the index tracks, cities surrounded by Relovilles fell the least—less than 6 percent around Dallas and Denver, for example.
What do you think the future of relocation looks like?
Companies are always reevaluating their relocation policies. As the recession continued, they sent more employees on relatively short-term assignments—for less than a year. The families stayed behind. Companies paid the breadwinner’s costs of visits home, but avoided the costs of moving the family and helping with the sale and purchase of homes. In foreign markets, companies tried harder to recruit nationals to move into management. (So they, too, become Relos. The top ranks of companies like Coca-Cola and Caterpillar Tractor are stacked with foreign-born executives.) Companies also tried forms of virtual relocation—using digital means like teleconferencing to conduct business far away.
But they found nothing to take the place of an effective executive who is both headquarters groomed and plugged into a distant market—wining and dining customers and sealing deals with a round of golf and a handshake. Also, back home at headquarters, companies still needed the experience that Relos gain from working across the companies’ entire horizon, so returning Relos get many of the top jobs. For all those reasons, as the global economy rebounds and opens new business opportunities, the rosters of Relos will surge to new levels. They always have after previous recessions.