It’s always the same: The more beautiful or otherwise appealing the locale, the harder it is to find a job there—or so it seems. Job hunting in one’s Shangrila appears to be stymied by what looks like the curse of an inverse law: the more irresistible the location, the more difficult it is to land a job there.

The specific locales, like those to be analyzed here, illustrate the relentless general principle and its associated manifestations, which I will describe and explain in detail.

For rustic locales, the inverse law imposes the challenge of finding any job, not to mention a career that isn’t in tourism, food production (fishing/farming) or distribution (the only grocery store), basic medical, household or government infrastructural services, or hospitality (e.g., local restaurants and hotels).

In some urban mega-magnets, such as Hollywood or New York, that can mean even fewer options, viz., waiting on tables and cleaning them—or the washrooms for wannabe and struggling actors.

Tsuwano, Japan (shown in all the photos here), fabled for its natural, cultural and historic charms that have earned it the nickname “Chisai Kyoto”—”Little Kyoto”, is a dramatic pastoral case in point: After only my first of four days t spent here, I elevated it to “The Best Small Town in My World”—to be distinguished from Gibsons, B.C., my most recent and now former home.

Somehow, Gibsons won the title “Best Place to Live in the World” in a 2009 international competition among towns with a population under 25,000 (which oddly seemed to have no Asian entries at all, even though Tsuwano would weigh in at about 9,000 residents vs. Gibsons 5,000 or so).

Now, although I’m not looking for a job here or anywhere, I can, given my experience in more than 50 countries, predict and understand why some, if not all, working people would desperately want to live and (in general, therefore) take up work here, or maybe even Gibsons, if Tsuwanao is a no-go.

But having grasped the inverse law long, long ago, I just had to test it and ask the locals, even though it immediately seemed obvious to me that working and living here is likely to be a tough combination to achieve—thereby making a mockery of the concept of (an unattainable) “work-life balance”, while confirming the inexorable, relentless law of imbalance, although in ways specific to Tsuwano.

For openers, it’s clear that this, like a lot of charming towns all over the world, is a one-industry town—tourism, unlike Gibsons, which has lots of trees and a mill nearby that employs a sizable workforce, among its limited employment opportunities (given some logistical challenges to working people, of the sort to be discussed below, e.g., for motorists, a very expensive 40-minute ferry commute to the city).

Tsuwano’s obstacle course for job hunters—whether Japanese or not—includes all of the following, which comprise an instructive list of red flags with global applicability:

  • a predominantly geriatric population: It wasn’t until my second day that I saw anyone walking on any of Tsuwano’s very quiet streets who wasn’t a senior citizen. The locals estimate that the population may be as much as 90% elderly.
  • a small population: Although the town covers a large area, the total number of residents is, as noted above, about 9,000. (Of course, huge seasonal influxes of tourists can be expected, given that Tsuwano has its own quaint train station and frequent inter-city bus services.)
  • a virtually invisible child and young family population: In my first two days, I saw not one child—until the end of the second day, when a group of about five beanied school tykes sang and skipped their way past me on the way home from school. Ditto for couples of child-bearing age, save for two tourists I saw.

The implications are that big-ticket family items will have no retail niche here and that two economic engine found in larger communities, namely, higher education and civil services will not be pumping cash into the local economy anytime soon, if ever (although the one political slogan I saw posted here hinted at local revitalization in typically and universally vague political terms).

  • no substantial industries other than tourism-related: I asked several business proprietors and staff, including the first younger people I encountered—the owner-manager of a local tourist services agency, his staff and neighboring miso-product distributors, a baked goods street vendor, a counter sales girl at a souvenir cake shop, the front staff at my hotel and various other locals about it. The consensus: Working in Tsuwano means working in tourism. That was their take, without exception.

Of course, such economic inhibitors and limitations are easily understood; but less easily comprehended is how and why the inverse law holds even when the reasons it does can differ significantly.

For example, consider Hollywood and the movie industry. As a beckoning dream, it historically has turned into a nightmare for the bulk of aspiring actors over the decades—but, unlike the case of Tsuwano, that was because of disproportionately high supply of migrant thespian talent, rather than the near-zero demand in Tsuwano.

Ironically, despite that difference, the job hunt in either locale has led to the same result: You work in tourism, hospitality or restaurants, or leave.

Fighting the Inverse Law

To fight or at least circumvent the inverse law of demand for the charm and non-supply of the jobs to finance having it, it is vital to be aware of the specific factors in specific cases that account for the law’s validity.

Here’s a partial list to work through, if you are contemplating working anywhere that seems like Shangrila to you:

*Probable unaffordability, even if a job is found: One name makes this clear—”Manhattan”. This consideration illuminates the obvious, that a job hunt will be a failure not only if a job is not found, but also if it simply doesn’t pay enough to stay.

Places like Tsuwano and Gibsons illustrate the dynamic that attracts people who don’t have to work in order to stay, e.g., retirees or the wealthy, for whom job-dependent affordability is not an issue,

Lesson: Before embarking on a job hunt in your Shangrila, be sure to confirm its affordability. Being told that there are “plenty of jobs” won’t matter, if they can’t pay the rent—which, in many extremely attractive locales, e.g., the West Side of New York or Vancouver, will be astronomical.

*Geographical isolation and difficult access: Tsuwano and Gibsons have another thing in common, besides being popular tourist destinations with substantial charmsThey are, in terms of infrastructure or expense, not the easiest places to get to or away from. Because of the lack of career-style employment, commuting would be a necessity for many would-be urban refugees, e.g., almost $70 for a car and driver to return to Gibsons, leaving being free.

Tsuwano has no Shinkansen bullet-train service and many of the fast routes have to detour through one city to get to another, e.g., through Hiroshima.

That not only makes access to and out of such a Shangrila inconvenient, but also digs a deep gouge into any prospective wage or salary.

Lesson: When scouting your Shangrila, always investigate the transportation logistics. The costs in time and money may compound the difficulty of finding a job with problems of getting away from it, whether for a break or a commute to better job venue.

Lack of self-employment opportunities: The youthful Osaka entrepreneur with whom I spoke in Tsuwano and who created his Tsuwano travel agency, is, like most of his staff, a transplant from a big city. He told me that self-employment was his best, if not only ticket into Tsuwano—and, again, predicated on tourism, as the local consensus prescribes.

Theoretically, Tsuwano and places like it would be perfect for a full-time teleworker (which is a highly unlikely option or scenario for most Japanese or for any foreigner).

Hence, contract, consulting and other freelancing, although ideal, is unlikely in Tsuwano—whereas in Gibsons, the odds are much better, because of an established telework culture, ubiquitous IT services and perhaps a more pervasive “back to nature”, noble savage, hippie or “Walden Pond” mentality or onset of it at an earlier age than in Japan.

Lesson: Always check out the self-employment and telework infrastructure as well as the job opportunities in or from your Shangrila.

*Bad demographics-skills match: For many white-collar professionals, fitness trainers, tradesmen, etc., the absence or shortfall of clientele populations is one of the most common Shangrila dream-crushers.

Attempting to open a cross-training or martial arts gym, a pediatrics practice or a piano bar in Tsuwano is very likely to be a non-starter, if not a career finisher.

In any case, for most skill sets like these, if there’s already somebody in town with them, one more will probably be way too much.

One corollary to this is what I call the “nature-nurture” inverse law: the more beautiful and pristine the place (e.g., a village, small island or really small town), the worse the odds of finding a desirable mate there, given the economic incentives to work elsewhere, where there are better job opportunities for singles.

Lesson: Check out your Shangrila’s demographics before packing your Volkswagen.

These are all basic and important considerations in formulating and implementing any plan to move to Shangrila and to have any real shot at having an ideal life—rather than have a dream demolished and crumble into futile fantasy.

Still unanswered is why the inverse relationship described here is so likely to sabotage one’s efforts to create an ideal work-life balance in any ideal locale.

What is it about ideal locales that inherently and viewed more abstractly makes finding jobs in them so frequently problematic?

Partial generic, reframed and broadened explanations include these, among the most important cited above:

  • Demand-pull “inflation”: Strong appeal of a locale translates into robust demand and “higher prices”, in the form of higher rents, higher costs of trucked or floated necessities and ferocious competitive bidding for whatever jobs are available. Two sides of the same coin, demand-pulling jobs and costs make the odds of a “win” on a toss less—much less—than ideal.
  • Seductions and cost-benefit delusions of Luddite charm: As suggested above, locales with all the charm of Tsuwano and Mennonite, Amish or Balinese villages, including small populations, quaint technologies and remoteness, are charming precisely because they lack the critical economic, technological and infrastructural development that creates, attracts and sustains high-paying jobs.

For example, starry-eyed job seekers fed up with being unable to see any stars in neon-illuminated big city centers are prone to making the simple mistake of imagining and calculating all the benefits of a pristine, Luddite lifestyle without factoring in crucial opportunity costs—in the sense of an lack of job opportunities, besides the costs of foregone big-city conveniences and “urban culture”.

  • Demographic mismatches: Even when one’s Shangrila offers attractive and “affordable” jobs, the inverse law can take a secondary toll, in virtue of some deal-breaking imperfection related to the local population. Typically, it’s the limited selection of local prospective relationship partners or the over-abundance and dominance of some group or subculture with which one has no affinities or connection, e.g., a local violent drug cartel managing a poppy plantation or a religious cult (such as Tenrikyo, which, like a real-world Ian Fleming SPECTRE, seemed to dominate, if not outright own and administer picturesque Tenri City, Japan when I visited it years ago).

On the other hand, f you happen to find yourself in a Shangrila with a drug cartel or a cult, maybe it won’t be so bad after all…

…since both imagine they can clear your mind of all worries, including that of the inverse law curse.

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