STAYING PUT

The reasons why millennials move less frequently than previous generations

Americans are far less mobile than they used to be. From 2015 to 2016, only 11.2% of Americans moved homes, the lowest rate since the Census began collecting this data in 1948. As recently as 1984, more than 20% of Americans moved in a given year. The rate has steadily declined in the decades since.

Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center points out that one of the major reasons for the decline is the relative immobility of millennials. The current crop of 25-35 year olds moves at a lower rate than previous generations at the same age over the past 50 years. (See here for a helpful definition of each generation.)

Fry notes that this lack of mobility is surprising given that millennials are less likely to have a spouse, house, or child—all impediments to moving around. He suggests instead that the steep economic downturn triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, and the slow recovery since, have contributed to this lack of movement. Besides wanting a nicer home or more space for a family, the most common reason cited for a move is employment. The weak post-recession job market hasn’t given many millennials the confidence or impetus to move.

Fry also thinks that the difficulty of owning a home could be another factor—buying a house is another major reason young people move. Tighter post-recession lending standards and sky-high student debt have made it hard for young people to buy houses.

The phenomenon of increasing rootedness is not just an American one. Demographers who study internal migration patterns have found that mobility is declining across the industrialized world. For example, Martin Bell and Elin Charles-Edwards of the Queensland Centre for Population Research found that from 1990 to 2010 the rates of moving declined in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Only in poorer countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam—where mobility rates remain much lower than in rich countries—did they find moving rates rise in recent years.

Declining mobility likely goes far beyond the specifics of present-day America and the idiosyncrasies of millennials who live there. In his classic 1971 paper “The Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition” (pdf), geographer Wilbur Zelinsky posited that internal mobility would decline after a country experienced a period of rapid urbanization. In the US and other rich countries, as urbanization has slowed, the rate at which people move has also indeed declined.

This suggests that because so many millennials already live in urban areas, regardless of other factors, they would still be the least mobile generation in a long time.

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