Good News: Young Americans On the Move Again

American mobility is on the rise — at least for now.

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Since the recession, American mobility — the rate at which we move between states, counties, and even neighborhoods — has fallen to record lows, which is both a reflection of economic troubles and a hindrance to recovery. But new data released by the Census Bureau shows that trend beginning to reverse, at least in the short term.

How frequently we move may not seem particularly significant, but it has major implications: Geographic stagnation is closely linked to economic stagnation. During tough times, Americans have historically set off for geographic areas with more jobs and other economic opportunities. In recent years, however, the real estate market hasn’t cooperated: Folks are not only struggling to sell homes, but with so many homes underwater, many can’t even think of selling.

Other factors are convincing people to stay put as well. America is aging, and older workers have always been less likely to move than younger ones. The growing prevalence of two-income households has made it less likely that families will migrate when someone loses a job. Meanwhile, growing student debt levels have made it hard for young people to leave their parents’ home to look for work.

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And in a kind of vicious cycle, this dynamic runs in both directions: Yes, tough times can cause a decrease in mobility; but decreased mobility can also stifle economic recovery. Several areas of the country have dramatically lower unemployment rates than others; and employers report that large numbers of jobs have remained unfilled for months because of a lack of qualified candidates. But circumstances are making it impossible for many Americans to take advantage of such opportunities.

But there’s good news, at least in the short-term. According to new data from the Census Bureau, mobility rates are starting to head back up after hitting an all-time low in 2011. Twelve percent of Americans moved in 2012. Most promising, 25- to 29-year-olds are moving again. According to analysis of Census Bureau data by William Frey, a demographer for the Brookings Institution, interstate migration for 25- to 29-year-olds rose from 3.4% in 2010-11 to 3.8% in 2011-12, the largest rate increase since 1999 and the highest level since 2005. It’s a small increase, but an important one, says Frey, who believes that rate will keep going up. “I expect to see a real uptick next year because of all this pent-up demand,” says Frey. “This young generation is ready to pop out of this.”

That said, the long-term trend isn’t likely to reverse anytime soon. After World War II, America was a nation on the move. In the 1950s and ‘60s, a fifth of us were relocating in any given year. The height of our mobility came in 1985, when 45 million of us packed up and relocated. Ever since, however, we’ve moved less and less — and the recession only accelerated that trend. Last year we hit a record low “mover rate” of 11.6%, largely because the two big drivers of mobility — housing and jobs — were still hurting.

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“The overall mover rate for the nation has increased since a record low,” said Alison Fields, chief of the Census Bureau’s Migration Statistics Branch, in a statement. “However, compared to previous years, mobility is still low for even our most mobile age group, 18 to 29 year olds.”

Another reason we shouldn’t celebrate quite yet: While the mobility rate rose, Americans still aren’t moving very far. According to the Census Bureau, the most common distance moved was 50 miles.

It’s not completely clear what has driven our weakened our desire to move since the mid-‘80s. Our aging population is a factor: Older people are less likely to move. The increase in home ownership over the last few decades has also brought down the mobility rate because homeowners are much less likely to move than renters. Even technology may be contributing: Computers increasingly allow us to work anywhere, so there’s less need to relocate for a new job.

Despite these trends, says Frey, long-term mobility rates may be close to hitting bottom. There’s just not much further for the mobility rate to fall. But the days of a dynamically mobile U.S. society are likely behind us.