Do you think that, over time, the U.S. has become an increasingly mobile nation? Is it your sense that people pick up and leave far more often than they did in the past? That’s part of our conventional wisdom, propped up by declarations in prestigious newspapers, scholarly journals, and popular culture. Remember those Carole King lyrics? “So far away / Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?”
There is one big problem with our belief that mobility in the U.S. has been increasing: It is exactly wrong. Sociologist Claude Fischer has shown that American mobility has been declining for well over a century. Because of improvements in data collection, evidence is clearest for the past 70 years.
The Decline in American Mobility
Currently, only about 10 percent of Americans — or even fewer — change homes in any given year. Twenty years ago, in the year 2000, about 15 percent moved. Twenty years before that, in 1980, under 18 percent changed homes. And in 1950, about 20 percent of Americans moved — about twice as many as today.
What’s more, when people move, it is usually not very far. Scrutinizing data from the past 35 years, geography professor Thomas Cooke found that most people who move stay within the same county, fewer move to a different county within the same state, and fewer still move to a different state. In 2019, only 1.5% of Americans moved to a different state.
Why Are More Americans Staying Put Instead of Moving?
There are many reasons why Americans have become more rooted over the past several decades. Here are a few.
One important way that life in twenty-first century America differs from life decades ago is the widespread availability of the internet and all our advanced communication technologies. Some people who may have moved in the past are no longer doing so, because they no longer have to. They can work remotely from their home, wherever that is, instead of moving to the physical site of a workplace. There are more educational opportunities that can now be pursued online, too.
The internet gets a bad rap, and often deservedly so, for making it all too easy to share false information. But high quality, highly useful information can be accessed, too. Professor Cooke argues that people are now doing research before they move, and consequently making better decisions about where to relocate. As a result, they are less likely to move again.
Some people would like to move, but just cannot afford to do so. Professor Cooke points to data showing that real incomes have been flat for the past 35 years. Many people have a lot of debt. For more and more people, moving is going to be too expensive even if they are renting and not trying to buy a new home. Six years ago, I moved when my rent went up, but my income didn’t. My new place was just a half a block away. I carried lots of boxes myself. Even so, I was stunned at what the move ended up costing.
Women’s Changing Roles
In households headed by heterosexual couples, more women have been working outside of the home. Sometimes it is because they want to, other times because a second income is a financial necessity. It is more difficult to move when two people need or want to find work in a new place than when only one does.
Both moving and staying put set up self-perpetuating dynamics. People who have moved once are more likely to move again. Even though moving can be costly and stressful, it tends to be less so for people who have done it before.
Settling into one place is self-reinforcing, too. People who have never or rarely moved see moving “as risky, expensive and disruptive,” Professor Cooke notes. They may also have emotional reasons for staying where they are, such as an attachment to their home, their community, or their job.
The self-perpetuating dynamics of rootedness may also get passed down through the generations. Children who grew up staying in the same place may, on the average, feel less inclined to move around when they can decide for themselves as adults.