Staying Rather Than Going


Clearly, the recession has something to do with declining mobility. You can’t move for a job if no job exists. You can’t buy a house if nobody gives you a mortgage. And you can’t sell your place and take off if nobody is buying. “This triple whammy of forces made it riskier for would-be home buyers to find financing, would-be sellers to receive good value for their home and potential long-distance movers to find employment in areas where jobs were previously plentiful,” William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution wrote in a report on the falling migration rate. The aging of the population might be another factor, because older people tend to move less often than younger ones do.

The rising cost of living in the most desirable and fastest-growing areas of the country could be another explanation. Many people, in particular the young, flock to creative-class capitals, but it’s possible that more of them would be moving in if they could make the rent. Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, the real-estate website, recently indexed the 100 largest metro areas by their affordability, finding, not surprisingly, San Francisco and New York were at the bottom of the list and hollowed-out cities like Gary and Dayton were at the top. This might help explain a phenomenon that started in the boom years before the recession: When Americans do move, they often move to places like the Inland Empire in California, where lower housing costs and a cheaper way of living might outweigh the reduced economic opportunity.

Data from the 2013 Census Bureau shows that 4.8 million Americans moved across state lines last year, as compared to 5.7 million in 2007 and 7.5 million in 1999—the number of people who are moving have dropped by half since the ’90s. Why is that? Annie Lowery says in the Times magazine that a shift in our economy and labor market may have something to do with it—the rise of the internet has made it easier for people to access information about jobs, and there are far fewer people moving for manufacturing and service jobs because manufacturing jobs have decreased dramatically in the last two decades.

A worker moving to a new town 30 years ago took a huge leap of faith about her new home and workplace. By making information more accessible, the Internet has improved the quality of any given move. As a result, Americans’ moves are stickier these days.

In other words, we’ll move someplace for a job or opportunity if we know it’s there—otherwise we’re staying put until we figure it out. Though if you’re an academic, it seems you’ll be all over the place.

Photo: Gavin St. Ours

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