Sure, We’re Still A Mobile People, But Not As Mobile As We Used To Be

Here’s the trouble with truisms: We often fail to notice when they become less true. A new report from the Census Bureau indicates one such case. We’ve heard all our lives that Americans are a uniquely mobile people, always ready to set off for new frontiers. It turns out, though, that this tendency has been abating for years. Between 2002 and 2003, 14 percent of U.S. residents moved to a new home—down from 20 percent in 1948, when the Census began collecting such data, and from 17 percent as recently as 1993-94.

Even with the decline in moving rates, 40.1 million people lived in a different home when surveyed in 2003 than they had a year earlier. What led them to pull up stakes? Relatively few did so because of a job. Among the year’s movers, just 8.8 percent changed homes because of a new job or a transfer. Another 1.9 percent moved to look for work or because they’d lost a job; 0.3 percent did so because they’d retired; 3.2 percent moved to have an easier commute. A bit more than half of all moves were for “housing-related reasons,” including a desire for a better house/apartment (19.8 percent) or to own rather than rent (10.2 percent). Those who moved in search of cheaper housing (6.5 percent) outnumbered those seeking a “better neighborhood/ less crime” (3.8 percent). “Family-related reasons” prompted about one-quarter of moves, including “change in marital status” (6.7 percent) and “to establish own household” (7.0 percent). For all the talk of sunbelts and snowbelts, 0.4 percent of movers changed address to get a “change of climate.” Given people’s motives for moving, it stands to reason they needn’t move very far. Indeed, the majority of moves (59 percent) were within the same county, and another 19 percent were to another county in the same state. Only 19 percent of movers shifted from state to state; 3 percent moved to the U.S. from abroad.

Who moved in 2002-03? Young adults did so more than other age cohorts: 30.1 percent of those age 20-24 moved, as did 28.1 percent of the 25-29s and 19.8 percent of the 30-34s. The rate tapers off steadily thereafter—from 15.3 percent among the 35-39s and 11.8 percent among the 40-44s all the way to 3.5 percent among people 85 and older. This helps, by the way, to account for some of the overall decline in moving rates: As the population’s average age creeps upward, the U.S. naturally becomes more sedentary. The long-term rise in home-ownership rates among Americans exerts a similar settling influence. People who rent their homes were about four times as likely as homeowners to have moved (30.7 percent vs. 7.4 percent).