Stay put, young man: fewer Americans are moving to new places than any time since the Great Depression

Zachary Roth

Pioneers heading west across the Rockies. Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl for California. African-Americans migrating from the rural south to the urban north. Retirees from the northeast opting for the sunnier climates of Florida or Arizona.

For centuries, the idea of picking up and moving in search of a better--or just a more comfortable--life has been embedded within the American DNA. But is that spirit in danger of disappearing?

A new research paper (pdf) finds that the rate at which Americans have moved around inside the United States has dropped significantly in recent decades. "Migration is at its lowest point since the Great Depression," Abigail Wozniak, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, said in an interview with The Lookout. Wozniak, who cowrote the study with Raven Molloy and Christopher L. Smith of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, called the change "pretty remarkable."

Migration has now declined for three straight decades, Wozniak said  -- something that hasn't happened since records began around 1900.

The changes may not sound drastic, but to those who study migration, they're striking. In 1980, 5.5 percent of Americans had moved from one region of the country to another within the previous five years. By 1990, that dropped to 5.1 percent. A decade later, it dropped further to 4.8 percent.

Or consider the share of Americans who merely moved from one state to another in the previous five years. In 1980, that number was 9.9 percent. In 1990, it went down to 9.6 percent. By 2000, it was 8.9 percent.

Even shorter moves, from one county to another, are also on the decline. In 1980, 19.8 percent of Americans had made such a move in the past five years.  In 1990: 19.5 percent.  By 2000, the number was down to 18.6 percent.

Data on five-year migration rates isn't available for 2010, but data on lifetime migration rates is--and it suggests that the decline has continued in the new century. In 2000, 18.3 percent of Americans--counting U.S. natives only--lived in a different region from the one in which they were born. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 17.5 percent.

And in 2000, 32 percent of U.S. natives lived in a different state from the one in which they were born. Last year, it was 31 percent.

The decline follows a long period of rising rates of internal migration. The share of Americans who moved from one state to another increased steadily from 1900 until 1980, with the exception of the years during the Great Depression. (The families that fled the Dust Bowl, it turns out, were an anomaly.)

It's tempting to blame the housing bust or the recession that followed for the the lower rates of internal migration in the past few years. But the study's authors tested both ideas and say they find "little evidence" to support them. "The decline in migration is not a particular feature of the past five years, but has been relatively steady since the 1980s," they write.

Instead, the authors float several potential explanations, though they're careful to say they're only theories. Among them:

• Technological advances that allow telecommuting and flexible work schedules have reduced the need to move for work.

• The growing homogenization of American locations has given people fewer reasons to move. Places are becoming increasingly alike--in terms of the goods and services they produce, and thus the types of jobs they offer, and in terms of amenities and lifestyle.

• The shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy boosted migration rates for much of the 20th century. Now that the transition is mostly over, internal migration is falling again.

The decline has been bigger among people who are working than those who aren't, Wozniak told The Lookout, suggesting that it has something to do with how work is organized.

But what that is remains a mystery. The rise of online job sites like was expected to lead to an increase, not a decrease, in migration, by making the labor market more integrated and globalized, as has happened with other markets. That instead we see the reverse phenomenon, Wozniak said, "makes it all the more surprising."

Still, those attached to the notion of America as a land of movers can take heart in one thing: According to the study, Americans still move around more than their counterparts in most other developed countries.

The research was published on the website of the Institute for the Study of Labor.