For the first time since the Census Bureau began recording annual migration statistics, fewer than 10% of Americans changed residence in a single year, according to just-released data for 2018-19. The new all-time low of 9.8% occurred on the heels of a year when the nation’s total population growth fell to an 80-year nadir, with only a modest increase in its foreign-born population—signaling a general stagnation of the nation’s demographic dynamics. Together, these data run counter to economic trends reflecting an increasingly robust national economy a decade after the Great Recession.
The new migration statistics draw from the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has tracked American relocations since 1947. They allow for analyses of different kinds of domestic moves over that 72-year period, chronicling a continued deterioration of American mobility. Especially noteworthy are the migration declines for the nation’s young adult population, now mostly occupied by millennials.
From migration to stagnation
The trends in U.S. migration show a fairly consistent decline since the late 1940s to 1960s period, when roughly one-fifth of Americans changed residence annually. This was a period of rapid economic growth and robust housing consumption, with a younger population than today. Afterwards began a gradual but sustained downturn in migration due to a variety of demographic and economic forces, including the rise of dual-earner households (making them less footloose), an aging population, and more homogenous labor markets emerging across the country. By the late 1990s, only about 15-16% of the population moved each year, dropping to 13-14% in the early 2000s.
Migration dropped even further—to the 11-12% range—after the Great Recession, no doubt reflecting the immediate impact of housing and labor market crashes. Since 2012, it has continued dropping to this year’s new low of 9.8%.
This decline has affected both local moves (those within counties) and longer-distance moves (those across counties), with the downturn sharpening since the recession and post-recession period. As shown in Figure 2a, local mobility hovered in the 8-9% range between 2005 and 2010—since then, it’s plummeted to 5.9%. Cross-county movement has hovered between 3.5-3.7% since 2007 (the first year of the recession), as shown in Figure 2b. Prior to this, cross-county mobility levels were 4% or higher—including rates in the 5-6% range in the 1990s. Because local moves comprise three-fifths of all moves, their consistent downward drove the overall pattern.
To better understand these trends, it is useful to understand the different motivations for each type of move. According to the census survey, more than half of local movers cite housing-related reasons such as the desire for new, better, or more affordable housing. Another 27% cite family reasons, including establishing a new household or a change in marital status.
A plurality of longer-distance movers, on the other hand, migrate due to labor market reasons such as starting or relocating to a new job. This means the ramifications of the past decade’s economic turbulence in housing and labor markets could still be contributing to migration declines today, especially among younger adults.
Millennials aren’t moving
While the slowdown in migration is true for most segments of the population, it is important to focus on young adults aged 18-34. These are historically the most mobile class of Americans, and can numerically drive the overall migration trend. But over the past decade, the millennial generation has borne the brunt of housing and job crises that have deeply affected their mobility.
Figure 4 shows the rates of mobility by age in 2005-06 and 2018-19. It makes plain that young adults, the group with highest rates in both years, also showed the largest decline in those rates. For example, among young people aged 20-24, only 20% made a move in the most recent year, down from 29% in 2005-06. As the figure indicates, this downturn in mobility also affects the movement of children under age 18, who are largely the offspring of these young adults.
When focusing on annual changes in migration rates for 25- to 34-year-olds over this 2005-2019 span, distinct patterns emerge for both local and cross-county migration (see Figures 5a and 5b). These patterns are broadly consistent with overall U.S. trends, and suggest that young adults are the driving force for them. Local migration for this age group dropped from a pre-2010 rate of 14-15% to a low of 10.3% in 2018-19. Likewise, cross-county migration after 2006 hovers between 6-7%, down from rates of 8% or higher before.
Millennials entering this age group have largely been saddled with “stuck-in-place” issues associated with higher housing costs and underemployment, leading them to postpone key life events such as marriage, childbearing, and homeownership. And even though renters tend to move more frequently than owners, the rental market has become increasingly unaffordable. The new census data show that the annual migration rates of renter households have declined precipitously over time (from 30.2% in 2005-06 to 19.7% in 2018-19). However, the cross-county migration trends for young adults, while not reaching pre-2006 levels, appear to be stabilizing rather than continuing to trend downward.
What’s to come?
Overall, the nation’s mobility is far less robust than it was even in the pre-recession era, and much less dynamic than in the 1990s or earlier. It is possible that the Great Recession and its impact on the housing market accentuated and extended the mobility decline of the millennial generation and, subsequently, of the nation. If that was the case, then mobility might rise somewhat for millennials and their Gen Z counterparts as the economy continues to prosper. Yet even so, these downward migration trends suggest a future of somewhat less demographic dynamism, cutting off people and places from broader economic changes and opportunities nationwide.