Book Review: Them

January 1, 2019


I’ve been saying since it came out that I wanted to read Them by Nebraska Senator Dr. Ben Sasse.

Well…I finally did, and I wasn’t disappointed (not much, anyway, but more on that). I found myself nodding throughout most of the book, and compelled to highlight several passages. It was a refreshing read.

I’m not a professional book reviewer. It seems challenging to me to recap the argument of the book without doing it some pretty gnarly disservice, so instead of that, let me try to distill the thesis, and then address his proposed way(s) forward.

They way I would describe the thesis is this: the reason the experiment the American culture and society is falling apart is that we have damaged the way that we find meaning in our lives, and instead of working to repair and adapt it to the currently-underway upheaval, we have learned to look for that meaning in all the wrong places. Where we traditionally found (and still do find) it revolved around quality relationships: our families, friends, communities, and civil society (the Rotary Club and high school sports get several mentions each). However, modern trends show that growing numbers of people have been cut off from these traditional loci of meaningful relationships for varying reasons and have instead tried to glean meaning from career achievement (fueled by technology-driven mobility), politics, “anti-identities” (identities rooted in what you’re against), among others.

So then, what does Sen. Sasse suggest by way of remedy? Community, “rootedness”, and quality relationships all rank high in his exploration of this topic.

Getting it mostly right, but…

However, in chapter 8, entitled “Be a Smarter Nomad”, he starts to engage with some ways to “build communities that could accommodate a new economic order.”

    The challenge that confronted frontiersmen in the West and urban reformers in the East was to discover models of community adaptable to their radically new conditions. It was clear to them that the old models would not do. There were false starts, and efforts that were good steps [that] still usually fell short. It took a great deal of time, which meant a lot of collateral damage. It also required the contributions of millions of people. But eventually they figured out how to create a sense of home in the Industrial Age.
    We’re in a similar moment. The old models no longer work, and we’re in need of discovering what it could mean to be home in the digital age. What might that look like? I suspect that the new community and the new forms of social capital that we will create will harness that new technologies of the gig economy that have undermined rootedness—but with the goal of putting down roots.

(p. 225)

This much seems pretty obvious to me: just like we did after the last economic upheaval, we have to figure out how to adapt our communities, relationships, and homes to flourish in the new environment. But this is where I feel like Sen. Sasse missed out on a contemporaneous shift in the way we work that dovetails perfectly with the premises of the book: working remotely

Remote work!

Sen. Sasse barely mentions the idea of working remotely at all, and when he does, it’s just in a list of ways in which we have cut ourselves off from meaningful and lasting relationships.

…the strong, long-lasting relationships—the years of coworking—that characterized previous generations are not being created by more recent generations. For many understandable reasons, we are now more open to sliding from opportunity to opportunity, using social media to keep “in touch” with people across the country or the world.
    There are many benefits of cheap and reliable travel, and of telecommunications and the potential of telecommuting, but one of the downsides is less overlap of people from the different spheres of our lives.

(p. 66)

But I think this is a pretty major omission from this book, and from any discussion on this topic. As with anything, remote work comes with a set of tradeoffs, which I’ll come back to. However, let’s first consider that remote work promotes exactly the kind of rootedness that Sen. Sasse rightly identifies the critical issue at stake. Because of remote work, one can take advantatge of the wave of ongoing economic change, and participate in the digital economy without having to sacrifice the most important relationships, and without developing a fear of commitment to a community. One can bring his surplus social capital to bear on his place, rather than depriving his place of it by the kind of mobility that prevents rootedness from taking hold.

Anyone who knows me even at a distance will know that my own experience informs my thoughts about this. I have been working as a software engineer for over a decade, and I have never needed to move because of my job. Not once. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s true that I’ve been affected by the new economic realities in the sense that I haven’t stayed in one job in my career, but my primary local, flesh-and-blood community hasn’t changed. I live where I live. My kids see their grandparents more than once per week. I get to see my own parents and inlaws approximately weekly. I know and see my wife’s extended family often. My kids live a few doors down from cousins, and cousins of cousins. We’ve been engaged in the same local church congregation for over ten years.

Is it true that if we had hopped from city to city chasing after only the very best possible career opportunities for me (or my wife) could we have made more money? Certainly it is. And certainly there is an element of sacrifice involved in staying planted where we are - but I am still a full participant in the new economy and am positioned to reap its benefits. More importantly there are so, so many jobs that can be done remotely that currently aren’t. Even in software engineering where remote work has become somewhat mainstreamed, it’s still not the primary mode of working. I understand some of the reasons why it is this way, but it disappoints me that Sen. Sasse didn’t hammer on this point because it dovetails so nicely with his main thesis.


But remote work disconnects you from meaningful work relationships!

This is the way that Sen. Sasse characterized it, albeit as an afterthought. It’s true that one of the tradeoffs of remote work is that work relationships take longer to form, and require intentionality that co-located work doesn’t. But if everything else that Sen. Sasse is saying is true (and I think it is), then this isn’t that big of a downside anyway: most people change jobs on short intervals (3 years or so). In my industry it’s even shorter: less than 2 years. Aside from that, you can develop meaningful relationships with co-workers - it just takes some effort and time.

Another “inch” of improvement that bears mentioning is “coworking” locations. For those of us who work remotely, and want to connect with people in meatspace, we can find places (such as WeWork, or local equivalents) and work in a place with other people, even if our jobs are tethered to far-flung places, as mine is to New York.

In any case, which relationships are more important? If changing your mode of work marginally affects your work relationships but flings open the door to long-lasting local relationships and community involvement, isn’t that the kind of “inch-by-inch” improvement that Sen. Sasse encourages us toward? I think it is, and I think instead of being a “Smarter Nomad”, we’d be better off to not be nomads at all, but instead leverage new tools and technology to help us be more rooted.