Jobs

A Nation No Longer On The Move (Part II)

Note: This is the second of two related posts.

In his latest New York Times Magazine column, Adam Davidson writes, "mobility has reached its lowest level in recorded history...This suggests, among other things, that people aren't packing up for new economic opportunities the way they used to."

To continue the discussion, we asked two demographic experts on different sides of the debate - Joseph P. Ferrie of Northwestern University and William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution - to answer the following question:

Have Americans lost the economic incentive to move?

Joseph Ferrie's response is below. To read William Frey's response, click here.

In the 1830s, the extraordinary mobility of the U.S. population was noted by Alexis De Tocqueville: "[M]illions of men are marching at once toward the same horizon...Fortune has been promised to them somewhere in the west, and to the west they go to find it." How did we get from there – a nation perpetually in motion – to here – a nation seemingly stuck in place?

The population's movement peaked in the late nineteenth century. Why? The simple answer is the movement of the western frontier. It left in its wake nascent urban centers, sites that could process and ship farm products to the east and import manufactured goods back to the west. These communities ranged from small towns to great cities that sprang up almost overnight. Chicago is the most dramatic example: its population grew from 4,500 in 1840 to more than 500,000 in 1880. Population growth this rapid provided enormous opportunities for potential migrants. They easily obtained jobs in factories, warehouses, and city offices. At the same time, the U.S. was a place with substantial differences across regions in the products and industries, providing migrants a range of choices in destinations that modern movers no longer see before them.

One lesson that can be drawn from this look backward at past U.S. migration is that geographic mobility and economic mobility were closely linked for much of the nation's history. The US had exceptionally high rates of economic mobility in the nineteenth century, compared to older European countries. The second is that going forward, geographic mobility will be less closely linked to economic mobility. The U.S. has become more economically homogenous. Americans now experience, if anything, somewhat less income mobility across generations than many Europeans.

This is unfortunate in at least one respect: it makes the route to economic mobility today considerably less forgiving than it was in the past. In the nineteenth century, an ambitious son or daughter could see their income rise simply through the act of changing location, an investment that could be made until well into their adult years. Today, by contrast, education is the route to advancement, but educational investments are already largely determined by the time individuals have reached their early twenties. Economic mobility and the "American Dream" of a better tomorrow are, if not dead, at least a great deal more elusive than they were in the past, when a train ticket to Chicago was virtually all it took to make a big step up the economic ladder.

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