by SETH BROWN
While there’s no consensus on the precise number of white-collar jobs
American companies will outsource to India in the coming years, it
seems increasingly clear that millions of middle-class jobs — from
programmers and back-office technicians to Wall Street analysts and
architects — will soon find their way from U.S. office parks to the
cubicles of Bangalore and Mumbai. And while we swap stories about
out-of-work programmers, one thing is clear: No one is preparing for
the most important challenge — ensuring that America’s suburbs are
ready for the inevitable and painful transition.
Why America’s suburbs? In short, because America’s high-tech suburbs
— where millions of “information economy” jobs have been created in
the past few decades — are most at risk. In Silicon Valley’s Santa
Clara County, unemployment is still above the national average. In
suburban Denver, telecom companies have shed thousands of jobs.
Cutting edge places such as suburban northern Virginia, Route 128,
outside of Boston, and Research Triangle Park, N.C., should all be
So will these leafy suburbs and corporate campuses turn into 21st
century versions of decaying Flint, Mich.? It’s too soon to tell, but
as America’s older cities know well, it’s hard to dodge the bullet of
inexorable economic change.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as the first wave of manufacturing jobs left
the United States for low-cost locations, hundreds of thousands of
American factory workers received pink slips. While factory workers
were hard hit by these wrenching changes in the economy, it was
America’s manufacturing cities — such as New York, Detroit,
Baltimore, and Philadelphia — that really hit the skids. Workers
could leave for greener pastures and other jobs, but cities could only
do their best to stanch the bleeding. The loss of these jobs sent many
cities into tailspins from which they are only now — 30 years later
— beginning to recover.
If America’s suburbs take a lesson from the recent experiences of its
cities, however, they just might have a chance. First, start planning
now for slower growth. While they might eventually be replaced, those
jobs won’t be coming back. Second, compete for new high-value
industries like nanotechnology and biotech. Third, encourage the
development of arts and cultural amenities that might persuade
existing residents to stay put.
With some luck, America’s suburbs will weather this global economic
storm. And if not, well — suburban Bangalore is supposed to be very
Seth Brown is publisher of The Next American City, a quarterly
magazine about the ongoing transformation of America’s communities.