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Once-restless Americans are staying put

The housing bust stopped movers in their tracks. But long before that, something had changed our propensity for moving. Now things may be stirring again.

By Marilyn Lewis Aug 29, 2013 11:01AM

Movers (© Exactostock / SuperStock/SuperStock)We Americans like to think we're a nation of strivers and movers. We may still be strivers, but we're not moving much anymore. Starting in the 1970s or '80s, our inclination for picking up stakes mysteriously began to change.

 

Since then, moving -- especially long-distance moves -- has dropped by as much as 50%, says Abigail Wozniak, a University of Notre Dame economist who studies labor trends.

 

"These are big numbers," Wozniak says. "We see it ... with long-distance moves, moves across county lines, across metro areas, across state lines."

 

Huge change

Nearly 19% of American households moved in 1970, says William Koerber, an expert on migration at the U.S. Census. The freshest census numbers are for 2011 to 2012, when just 12% of households moved. (Check out the census historical data on migration.)

 

That's a dramatic change, says demographer William Frey, at the Brookings Institution.

 

"Typically, we're a nation of mobility. We have one of the highest migration rates in the world, and it's been very important to keep our economy fueled," he says.

The housing bust and recession stopped movers in their tracks. But moving, which many say fuels the country's economic competitiveness by allowing workers to quickly go where the jobs are, already had slowed a great deal before the recession hit.

 

The most dramatic drop, from 16.1% to 14.5%, happened in one year, between 1999 and 2000, Koerber says. To this day, no one has explained it, he says.
 
Effect of the crash

By 2003-2004, well before the recession, only 13.7% of households were moving, whether near or far. And then came the housing crash.

"Since 2006 we've had a huge migration downturn in the United States," Frey says. "Not just short-term migration -- people moving across town -- but also long-term migration, people moving from one state to another, from one metropolitan area to another." 
 
A new low was reached in 2010-2011, when just 11.6% of households moved. New census numbers won't be out until later this year, but a few moving-related companies are reporting an improvement in business.

 

Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement company, surveyed about 3,000 clients and found that "the percentage of unemployed managers and executives relocating for new jobs in the first half of 2013 climbed to its highest level since the beginning of the recession."

 

FlatRate Moving, based in New York City, checked the pulse of its clientele, too. Its moves increased 2% last year, with 8.5% more long-distance moves in 2012 than the year before.

 

Long-distance moves are more often for work, although moving for a job accounts for only about 20% of moves, the Census Bureau says. Most moves are related to housing changes or family reasons.

 

The mystery: Why?

So what's changed? You might imagine that, as the nation aged, we've slowed down. Young people, after all, shuffle around more.

 

But that's not the case, says Wozniak. She and two colleagues published research on the question in 2011. They wondered if the rise in dual-income households was to blame. And while it's surely harder to find two jobs out of town than one, two-paycheck couples aren't a big enough slice of the demographic pie to account for the change.

 

Neither does the increase in homeownership before the recession. Renters do move more often but increases in homeownership didn't explain the change either. The researchers looked at "health-insurance lock," when you can't change jobs because you'd lose health insurance. But that wasn't it. They looked at increases in working women and foreign immigration but rejected those possible explanations, too.

 

"This is a broad-based decline," says Wozniak. "It has affected lots of different types of people. You see it among the more educated, the less educated, young workers and middle-aged workers." (Older workers don't migrate much, regardless.)

 

Other researchers posit that cheap airfares and the Internet play a role (.pdf file), since you can now check out a place easily before moving. 

 

"There isn't any set explanation," concludes Frey.

 

No advantage in moving

"Our hypothesis," Wozniak says, "is that the labor market has changed so people don't want to change jobs as much."

 

The theory, Wozniak says, is that there's no more fat in the labor market. Where some companies were more generous than others and switching employers could get you a better deal, "now there just isn't the opportunity to find the firm with the really good package." To some extent, she adds, it's related to the fact that wages haven't really grown in a long while.

 

It's not a comprehensive explanation, Wozniak says. There's more work to be done. "I would say that we don't have a silver bullet."

 

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9Comments
Aug 29, 2013 11:44AM
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Yeah, I see the reason why the decrease in moving, you don't move anywhere when there's no job to go to. Good jobs are difficult to find now-a-days, industry sent overseas....no job, no move.
Aug 29, 2013 12:32PM
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The reason for the drop in moves is corporations can now lobby congress for work visas or arrange to have labor brought in from Mexico via the cartels.  The change in America migration is solely linked to illegal immigration, the ability top increase work visas, tele-comuting (although low), greed and the collapse of the economy in 2008.

 

Between 1988 and 2000 I alone moved 4 times to across the country for jobs, all were the result of corporate relocations.  Corporate relocations are rare today and most do all they can to avoid relocating a potential employee.  If you want to end the skill mismatch, institute a huge tax break and corporate America will go for it. 

 

The 2008 economic collapse has impacted Americans in a profound way that may continue to have adverse affects for decades.  It is hard to understand why no one went to prison for the damage they did to American families.  This outcome has only emboldened those that caused the 2008 collapse and we had better be ready for the next.

 

We live with economic terrorist in our mist. 

Aug 29, 2013 5:26PM
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It is the jobs.  If you have a well paying job, you are not going to get up and move somewhere else.    The chances are today you are not going to find any job that pays more than what you are making now so why move?  Cost of living for every city in the U.S. is easily available on line so you can check out whether it really makes sense to move.  Unless that job in another city pays allot more than what you are currently making, it makes no sense to move.
Aug 29, 2013 8:00PM
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The title should read "once-wealthy Americans are now broke and jobless"
Aug 29, 2013 1:56PM
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No need to move anywhere for a job when you're happily cashing government welfare checks.......
Aug 30, 2013 2:45PM
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What about the number of people upside down in their current home? It's hard to justify moving when you owe more on your home than its supposedly worth after making years of payments...
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