Demographer Unpacks Why Fewer Americans Are Moving Americans are moving and relocating less than any time on record. NPR's Michel Martin speaks with demographer William Frey about the trend and what it says about the economy.
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Demographer Unpacks Why Fewer Americans Are Moving

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Demographer Unpacks Why Fewer Americans Are Moving

Demographer Unpacks Why Fewer Americans Are Moving

Demographer Unpacks Why Fewer Americans Are Moving

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Americans are moving and relocating less than any time on record. NPR's Michel Martin speaks with demographer William Frey about the trend and what it says about the economy.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to an important story that you may have missed. This week, the Census Bureau released new data that shows that fewer than 10% of Americans moved this year. That is the lowest percentage since the census started collecting this information in the 1940s. To help us better understand what this means, we've called on demographer William Frey. He's a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. It's a research institute here in Washington, D.C. He's with us from their studios.

Mr. Frey, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

WILLIAM FREY: Oh, good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with the basics. This data is mostly about people moving within the country. Why is that that important thing to keep track of?

FREY: Well, it's a measure of how mobile we are, how much robustness we have in our economy. People think of a country that has a lot of mobility is where the economy is booming along, and people are following those jobs or getting new houses. Doesn't directly measure economics, but it's an indirect measure of how well we're doing, I guess. And here in the United States, we've always been thought of as a very mobile nation compared to countries around the world.

MARTIN: And the big takeaway here is that this is the lowest migration rate since the end of World War II. Why?

FREY: You know, that's a pretty good question. I mean, we need to look at it in perspective. There's been a gradual but consistent decline in migration in the United States, really since the late 1940s. The 1950s and 1960s, we had a robust economy. We had a lot of consumerism. We had a younger population. And all of that goes hand in hand with migration. And so about a fifth of the population moved every year back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

And as we got into the '70s and into the '80s, the migration rate went down sort of gradually but consistently over time. Households became dual-earner households. When you have two people working, it's hard to sort of everybody pick up stakes. The population got older. Older people don't move as much as younger people, so that helped to bring the rates down. And the labor markets around the country became a little bit more homogeneous, so you could probably find a job locally where you wouldn't have to move very long distances.

So that - kind of all those kind of gradual explanations continued. But then we had the Great Recession in 2007, and coupled with a housing bust - the movement rates are going down anyway, but both of those things helped to put the damper even further on the movement rates, especially for young people, millennials.

The first millennial turned age 27 in 2007 - the first year of the recession. So as that group moved in and beyond those ages - ages where you would buy homes where you would start families, where you would have children - they were putting all of that stuff off, and the migration rates came down as well. So there has been a continued movement downward, especially for local moves. And that's where we're down to 9.8% compared to 20% in the 1950s and 1960s.

MARTIN: Well, you were telling me, though, that you keep expecting the numbers to tick back up, and they never do. And the reason that this is striking is that, you know, the recession has been over - at least, according to, you know, the numbers - for quite some time now. So why do you think it is that the numbers still haven't changed?

FREY: You know, I think that's a very good question, and there are a lot of smart people trying to figure out the answer to that (laughter). But my view of it as a demographer is that these millennials, you know, are reaching a stage where they are making these decisions about having kids and getting married. They're not going to be single and living in their parents' basements forever. And as the economy is getting better, we may not go back to the '50s level of migration but maybe to like the early 2000s (laughter) - instead of 9.8%, maybe 12% a year or something like that.

That hasn't happened, and that's what surprised me. Some of these other indicators show that they're doing a little better on these other economic measures and family measures, but not on this migration. And so that's, I think, a little bit of a puzzle.

MARTIN: I take it that you think this is a worrisome sign - that if fewer people are moving within the United States, that that's sort of an indicator of sort of a lack of dynamism. But I wonder whether it speaks to something else - that people feel that they're valuing other things.

FREY: Well, it could very well be. I mean, maybe because this migration rate has continued to go down over time and now is kind of stuck at even lower levels, it may be just the new normal. I mean (laughter), as young people get into their 20s and so forth, which are the - typically the high-migration years, you know, they're a little more resistant to make those kinds of moves, and they're happy where they're living now. Even though they might be able to find a job somewhere else that might pay a little bit more, they're maybe not as prone to take advantage of those decisions.

I'm still not giving up on the idea that migration's going to tick up a little bit again. But there's the other issue sort of maybe broader look down the road - is that people may not move as much for jobs. I mean, they may telecommute more than they did in the past. The kinds of jobs that may be available to people, they can do at home. And that may change in the future, too. So it's possible we're moving to a new normal. But I think this has gone down so strongly that I'm expecting a little bit of an uptick in the next couple of years. I still haven't given up hope on that.

MARTIN: That is demographer William Frey. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Frey, thanks so much for talking to us.

FREY: Sure. I enjoyed it.

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