Eyes On U.S. — California, The World Is Worried About You
As an Italian bestseller explores why people are fleeing the Golden State, the international press also takes stock of unprecedented Silicon Valley layoffs. It may be a warning for the rest of the world.
For as long as we can remember, the world has seen California as the embodiment of the American Dream.
Today, this dream may be fading — and the world is taking notice.
A peek at the Italian list of non-fiction best-sellers in 2022 includes California by Francesco Costa, a book that looks to explain why 340,000 people moved out of the state last year, causing a drop in its population for the first time ever.
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Why are all these people leaving a state that on paper looks like the best place in the world to live? Why are stickers with the phrase “Don't California my Texas” attached to the back of so many pick-up trucks?
And for Italians, and the rest of the world, Costa warns that the same could soon happen elsewhere.
Not even Google
The causes are manifold: rising crime, frequent wildfires and a stagnating yet increasingly polarized political debate. Two mass shootings this past week in California add to a deepening social anxiety.
Still, the main reason is ultimately economics, particularly the cost of living in big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Indeed, the latter — San Francisco, and the nearby Silicon Valley — is getting plenty of attention in recent weeks, as the giants of the internet that sparked the most recent of California’s many gold rushes are forced to downsize for the first time.
The only tech giant that seems to have averted major layoffs so far is Apple.
Layoff announcements are multiplying and affecting just about all of Big Tech — Nobody is safe, not even Google, writes Hortense Goulard, the San Francisco correspondent for French business daily Les Echos.
This comes after the pandemic, when tech companies had reaped huge profits and started hiring with a vengeance: the workforce of Meta went from 44,900 in 2019 to more than 87,300 at the end of September 2022 (94% growth in terms of personnel). In the same period, Microsoft grew by 53%, Google (Alphabet) by 57%, and Amazon by 100%.
Yet as the current overall economic crisis is cutting into tech profits for the first time, the news of Silicon Valley job cuts has rolled in on a nearly daily basis. By January 2023, Amazon had already laid off 18,000 employees and Meta did the same with 11,000 of its workers. Microsoft and Google have just announced that they will part with 10,000 and 12,000 people respectively, writes Francesc Peirón in Barcelona-based La Vanguardia daily.
The only tech giant that seems to have averted major layoffs so far is Apple and it has to do with its more cautious hiring strategy. Indeed, Apple did not take part in this recruitment race and increased its workforce in the last three years by only 20%, as Luca Tremolada from the Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore points out.
It’s the economy, stupid
Many of those who are now struggling to find a job have also lost their work-related health insurance and are wondering how they will be able to afford a life in California, the third most expensive state in the U.S.
It’s true that for those who still have a job, salaries remain high: a senior software engineer will be paid, on average, between $150,000 and $250,000, but can often exceed $300,000, along with company shares and other bonuses.
And yet, as Costa explains, the pay is relative if one takes into account the cost of living in the Bay Area around San Francisco, which contains four of the ten most expensive counties in the United States. In San Francisco, an individual earning less than $82,000 per year and a family of four earning less than $117,000 are considered low-income.The median home value exceeds $1 million and the average monthly rent of a 1-bedroom apartment is around $3,000.
California's crisis is unique in the world, but its reasons are not exclusively Californian.
At Google, employees can eat for free in the workplace, which lowers the cost of living but encourages them to spend more and more time in the office, and less and less time with their families.
"Except in the case of wars and natural disasters,” Costa points out in his book, “migratory movements in our times follow directions marked by the economy and employment: people leave places that offer fewer opportunities to reach places that offer more. However, it is not the case for California.”
Of course, Costa’s book predates the recent rounds of layoffs — and 2023 may bring a new exodus of laid-off tech workers.
From Europe, there may be a similar dynamic at play, as the cost of living in cities like Rome or London is becoming increasingly unaffordable.
Costa says what happens in the Golden State is a distant warning for the rest of us. “California's crisis is unique in the world, but its reasons are not exclusively Californian: we are beginning to see them here too," he writes. "California forces us to question our reality and invites us to be careful what we wish for, because we might get it."
— Ginevra Falciani
In other news …
📚 LOST IN TRANSLATION
Bettina Abarbanell is the German voice of great U.S. writers. The high-profile translator tells German daily Die Welt about her work, which includes seemingly impossible tasks such as “converting sentences from American to German that are grammatically so differently structured, without making them more difficult,” an endeavor which can be particularly challenging “with shimmering work like that of (F. Scott) Fitzgerald, or a cryptically humorous narrator like (Jonathan) Franzen.”
Abarbanell also goes back to the debate that broke out in translation circles two years ago, when the publishing house Hoffmann und Campe decided that Amanda Gorman’s poems, having been written by a young black woman, also ought to be translated by a young black woman: "That would mean that I could only translate something a 61-year-old white middle-class author wrote," says Abarbanell, "That’s translation ad absurdum."
📰 UP, FRONT PAGE AND CENTER
Monterrey-based Mexican daily Milenio did the math on meth: with 539 drug-cooking facilities discovered in Texas and California over the span of three years, that’s “one Breaking Bad type narcolab found every other day” in the U.S.
In a recent tweet, U.S. news agency the Associated Press tweeted a series of recommendations aimed at encouraging journalists to avoid “general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels. The APStylebook account proceeded to list examples such as "the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled…,” prompting French newspaper Le Figaro to wonder whether the inclusion of les Français was meant out of “clumsiness, irony or an intended dig.”
The tweet has since been deleted, and the @APStylebook Twitter account has apologized.