Americans Used To Move A Lot
By Garett Jones
Over the holidays some of my relatives lamented the changes going on in America. One of the lamentations: the decline of dynamism, the rejection of the frontier spirit.
Is there something to this? One piece of evidence: We just don’t move around as much as we used to. Not nearly as much. The graph below starts in 1986, this graph with smaller fonts goes back to 1947:
Source: Census Bureau, more figures here (PDF).
One in 15 of us used to move counties every year, now it’s about 1 in 30. This isn’t just an effect of our aging population; the post-1947 graph shows gross numbers of movers per year and that’s been falling since the early 1960’s, and links below provide further evidence. The last spike in mobility was in the early 80’s, in the aftermath of the Volcker/Reagan recession. Other than that, we’ve become more rigid, more sclerotic with every passing decade.
I might have thought that with smaller families and more singles people would find it easier to pick up and move to a better life. Instead the decline of the nuclear family has coincided with more nesting, more geographic stability.
Americans used to move around a lot. Now we don’t. Is this a sign of declining economic dynamism?
Maybe but let’s look at some additional explanations:
1. Sociologist Claude Fischer (PDF) says that rising prosperity and the welfare state have both curbed rootlessness; in his view most people are natural homebodies and are likely to stay planted until the money runs out.
2. Free Exchange discussed Minneapolis Fed research claiming that the growth of the in-person production and service economy (e.g., healthcare, spa treatments) and the rising ease of learning about good towns to move to (Yelp, guidebooks, etc.) help explain the decline in mobility. You don’t need to move to a place to find out it’s awful but once you build a career as a pedicurist your client base is local.
There’s probably something important to both of these stories; and notice that Fischer’s story is a version of the story told by my relatives. Prosperity makes us less dynamic.
I hope that geographic mobility doesn’t have massive positive productivity spillovers.
Categories: Labor Mobility, Immigration, Outsourcing