The Urban Lands of Opportunity

This new way of work has given rise to what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places” — the Starbucks where we go not just to drink coffee but also to send an e-mail; the hotel lobby where we take a meeting; or the local library where we write a report, edit a document or revise a business plan.

Increasingly, places are supplanting plants — corporate headquarters and factories — as the principal social and economic organizing units of our time. There are several reasons for this.

People used to follow the jobs; they moved where the company sent them. But today, people often pick a place to live first and then look for work. Today, it may be where we live, rather than who’s employing us at the moment, that attaches us to our work and careers.

There used to be a saying in Silicon Valley that you could change jobs without having to change your parking lot. Urban workers today simply switch subway stops or take a different bike path when they get a new job. Especially in tough times, it makes more sense to choose a big city, with its thick labor markets and greater economic opportunities, over a single company.

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A Starbucks in Fort Worth. Lifestyles and work styles have blurred to the point that a stop for coffee also offers a chance to tackle important tasks.

Credit
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Certain cities offer specialized career opportunities: Silicon Valley is the place to be if you’re a techie, Los Angeles if you’re an aspiring actor or director, Nashville for music. Other cities are more diverse and offer a wide range of vocations to try out.

One young man told me he moved to Washington after college because he wanted to explore as many of his interests as he could before committing himself to just one. In Washington, he could work for a research organization or a journal, a nonprofit or an N.G.O., or perhaps for the State Department. Or he could go to graduate school.

As it happened, this man’s indie rock band took off. Washington’s club scene, filled with young people with disposable income, provided the perfect launching pad for a career in music.

Despite the hits that Wall Street and the news media have taken, New York remains the center of a diverse and entrepreneurial economy. And regional hubs like Chicago have been sucking up a huge share of the talent and opportunities…

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