Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Why has America been growing less mobile for 60 years?
Last year, about 36 million people in the U.S. picked up and moved, either across town or across the country. That was about one in 10 Americans, or 11.7 percent. Which, depending on your demographic, probably sounds surprisingly low (a quick glance around my desk shows five of six Cities staffers on the move in the last six months of this year alone).
In fact, this mobility rate, based on data released by the Census Bureau today, is about as low as it's ever been, dating all the way back to the 1940s:
You've probably heard about Millennials trapped in their parents' rec rooms, unable to find work or homes of their own since the start of the recession. But that trend alone clearly can't explain a 60-year decline in American mobility. So what's been going on here? And should we (if not the U-Haul industry) be concerned? Physical mobility, after all, can cut both ways: For some populations, high mobility reflects choice, for others instability. Low mobility, likewise, may mean that people are content with where they are, or, conversely, that they're stuck in homes they can't unload.
For one thing, that decades-long decline reflects the long-term rise of homeownership in America. Homeowners move less often than renters. And considerably more of us are homeowners now than in 1948 (although that trend has begun to turn since the housing bust). In 1940, the U.S. homeownership rate was 44 percent. Today, it's 65 percent.
More recently, the recession has certainly stalled mobility. But a greater trend is at work too: the U.S. population is now rapidly aging, and an aging population moves left often, too (both by choice and necessity). That means that even as homeownership starts to tick down, and as Millennials start to find jobs and homes of their own, this decline will likely continue.
"We need to get used to a low-mobility population," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, he adds, and mobility in the U.S. is still much higher than in many other countries. But Frey's statement rings true on multiple levels: Baby boomers who want to "age in place" will obviously move less often, but their literal mobility will be restricted as they age in other ways as well.