Divided loyalties

“So, what do you do?”

My friend visiting from San Francisco stifled a laugh when she heard this familiar line at a cocktail party. She has a theory that Bostonians can’t use any other question to start a conversation with a stranger — and, furthermore, that until we’ve established what a person does (meaning gainful employment, not hobbies or recreation), we feel ill-equipped even to make small talk about vegetable dip.

I remembered her theory as I puzzled over some data in Great Expectations, MassINC’s recent study of 25- to 39-year-olds and our attitudes toward life in Massachusetts. Several of the findings make sense only when you consider how central work is to our lives and identities. Here’s an example: 55 percent of younger people in the state (and 61 percent in Greater Boston) say that the “availability of affordable housing” needs “major improvement.” At the same time, 87 percent pronounce themselves satisfied with their jobs — much higher than the 37 percent who voice confidence in the effectiveness of state and local government. Never mind that many of our salaries don’t allow us to buy a home. Maybe we see the problem as one of high prices, not inadequate salaries.

This framing of the housing issue suggests a knee-jerk tendency to give our employers a benefit of the doubt that we deny our government. That’s interesting when you consider that in 2007, the average CEO made 344 times what the average worker made, a huge increase in the wage gap since our parents were in their 20s and 30s and the ratio was about 35-to-1. Those of us in the 20-to-40 age bracket are more often average workers than CEOs. Nonetheless, a whopping 89 percent of us are convinced that our employers are “socially responsible,” defined as “respectful of ethical values, people, communities and the environment.”

It may be that we associate the phrase “socially responsible” with recycling bins, not with the treatment of, well, ourselves. Or it may be we give our employers the benefit of the doubt because our jobs are so central to our identity. If we don’t yet have families or even spouses, work often is what defines us, and who wants to think that she’s slaving away 60 hours a week for some quasi-feudal lord — even if she sort of is?

Private employers also spend a lot of time and money shaping their image; if they give money to a local youth center or install low-energy light bulbs in their meeting rooms, we hear about it. But I suspect our tendency to have more faith in our employers than our local government also has a lot to do with the way we move around in our 20s and 30s.

My friend Cara is, in some ways, typical of my generation. Now 33, she’s lived in five different cities since she was 21. She works long days in the corporate world — 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. isn’t unusual — and while she owns her Cambridge condo, she says her connections to and identification with the city are negligible. She has no children, so no connection to schools or the local sports leagues. She doesn’t make use of many civic institutions or know much about local government. She could as easily live in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago, since city and state are not important to her sense of self. So where do her energies and loyalties belong? To her friends, her work, and, of course, to the places she spends her money.

“I derive a certain comfort when I am in a new city from visiting a mall or a downtown area with familiar chains,” she told me, a little sheepishly. “‘There’s the Starbucks’, I say, and I feel somewhat grounded. ‘And the Ann Taylor store is over there.’ I wander over and feel some comfort seeing the familiar Starbucks decor and Ann Taylor merchandise.”

Cara is an Ann Taylor person in a way that she isn’t a Cantabridgian, or a Bay Stater. It isn’t that she’s materialistic; it’s that the source of her pantsuits has been a constant for 12 years, even as the store’s backdrop has changed from San Francisco to Philadelphia to Cambridge. For anyone who moves around a lot, corporate brands can come to feel homey — ironic, yes, but there it is. I have friends who would have no problem swapping Massachusetts for, say, Pennsylvania, but wouldn’t be caught dead buying a PC instead of a Mac (or vice versa), or sipping coffee at a Peets rather than a Starbucks. I know Prius drivers who love bonding with other Prius drivers based on what they imagine they must have in common.

This loyalty to brands rather than places isn’t surprising, especially for those with the means and education to travel and conduct national job searches. Anyone who came of age in the last 15 years may find it easy to sort of glide right over regional attachments. Places that used to have “Metropolitan” or “Boston” in their titles (think of a certain theater and sports arena) are now named after Citibank and TD Banknorth. White-collar employees can live all over the world while working for the same corporation, enjoying the same grande iced latte each morning, and reading no newspaper other than The New York Times online, if they are so inclined.

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There is probably not much government can do about disappearing geographic lines and loyalties. However, it can work to make Massachusetts more attractive to young people, and that means devoting resources to the top concern of this generation: housing prices. Still, the way I see it, my age bracket also needs to stop asking what our state can do for us and what we can do for our employer, and start posing the opposite question to each. If you work in a company where the CEO makes 300 times what you do, and you worry about affording a home in Massachusetts, well, sure, one answer is to move to Raleigh and another is to wonder why the state government isn’t doing more to help. But another is to start demanding a bit more from our employers — or at least recognizing that they play an integral role in the salary-to-housing price equation.

What we do will likely continue to be central to who we are. But that shouldn’t stop us from seeing our workplaces — and our municipalities — as two-way streets.

Alison Lobron is a writer in Cambridge. She can be reached directly at alobron@hotmail.com.