Americans are moving less than ever, and it’s bad for the economy

Americans need to move to keep the economy humming.
Americans need to move to keep the economy humming.
Image: AP/David Zalubowski
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The best job for someone is not always in the area where they live. Often times, the job that will pay them most, and make the best use of their skills means moving to another city, state or country. Though making the choice to move can be difficult emotionally, it is extremely good for economic growth. Productive people make productive economies.

Unfortunately for the US economy, people don’t move they like they used to. According to recently released data from the US Census, only 10.1% of adults moved homes from August 2017 to August 2018. This is the lowest rate of moving since the government began collected data in 1948.

The census tracks moves within counties, within states, or across states, and no matter how you look at it, moving rates are way down from just 15 years ago.  For example, from 2002 to 2003, 2.8% of Americans moved across state lines. From 2017 to 2018, it was just 1.5%.

It’s not just a result of an aging population. 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.)

From an economic perspective, the most disturbing trend is the lack of people moving for work. Just 3.8 million people listed looking for work or a new job as their reason for moving in from 2017 to 2018. In the early 2000s, each year about 5 million people said they moved for one of these reasons—even more striking when you consider that the US population grew by more than 30 million people over that period.

The reasons for the drop in mobility are not entirely clear. One possible explanation is the exorbitant housing costs in the cities with the most productive economies, like New York and San Francisco. Another likely contributing factor is the increase in the number of jobs that require an state certified occupational license. If you are a security guard in Florida, and moving to California requires you to get a new license to work, you may be less willing to move. 

The US’s unusually low unemployment rate probably isn’t a factor, as, historically, moving rates and overall unemployment are not correlated. People still seem to be able to find jobs near them, it’s just that they probably are not the ones that most efficiently use their skills.

The US needs a mobile workforce to be at its most dynamic. At the moment, it is just getting more stagnant.