Why you should care
Because movement used to be a route to upward mobility.
If you’re interested in migration patterns, Detroit is a good place to grow up. After all, the Motor City has done more than any other metropolis to set restless Americans in motion. But what initially intrigued native son Thomas Cooke was witnessing his hometown and other industrial cities in the Rust Belt hollow out and sputter to an economic stop, upending some long-held patterns.
Americans like to think of themselves as footloose, a people that’s ever-westering, looking for an opportunity to build better lives in a new continent, new territory, new town. Millennials move wherever they can find a job. Baby boomers used to be like that too, but now they live in the houses they bought 30 years ago with earnings from the jobs they’ve had all their lives.
But actually, the opposite is true. According to U.S. census data:
People ages 18 to 24 move 33 percent less than that age group did 20 years ago.
When Cooke, now a geography professor at the University of Connecticut, noticed the trend, he says he was shocked. “I would guess that there’s going to be a real generational shift between the baby boomer generation, who were frequently migratory,” Cooke says, “to the millennial generation, which is going to be much less migratory.”
Although young adults still tend to move around more than the average American, the demographic is seeing a greater decrease in moving rates compared to the overall population, says Kristin Kerns, a statistician in the Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. Five-year mover rates for millennials in slightly older age brackets — 25 to 29 and 30 to 34 — also are decreasing more than the national average, Kerns says.
The trend may seem contradictory, particularly since millennials are less likely to have a spouse, own a house or have a child — all of which tend to tie people down, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report. But some of the other factors that inhibit migration in general may come into play for millennials, including dual working couples, declining real wages, information technology that enables working from remote locations and, most significantly, high housing costs in areas of greatest economic growth.
And then there’s Cooke’s more fundamental theory: Perhaps the U.S. is just returning to normal after a period of vigorous geographic relocation in the first half of the 20th century.
“You had really intensive growth of urban, industrial cities; you had migration from rural areas to urban areas, especially among African-Americans; the Dust Bowl displacement; suburbanization; the expansion of universities,” Cooke says. “That first half of the 20th century into the 1960s or so was a period of real dislocation.”
Baby boomers, in other words, may be snowbirds now, but they’ve been migrating their entire lives. In contrast, the incentives to roam for millennials, particularly those in low- and middle-income households, aren’t as strong as in generations past. For them, pursuing the American dream may mean staying put.