The Economic Impact of Declining Mobility

The Economic Impact of Declining Mobility

Doug Anderson, SVP, Research & Development, The Nielsen Company

SUMMARY: People in the U.S. move for a wide range of reasons, but typically they seek out places that provide them with opportunities—economic opportunities most often. But, mobility is on the decline, and not just because of the ongoing economic downturn. Moving rates have been dropping for the past several decades, driven by long-term demographic trends.

The percent of the U.S. population who move is now at an all time low…

The percent of the U.S. population who move has declined every year since the late 1960s (with the exception of a few years, in the mid 1980s). Prior to that, nearly 20% of the population moved every year. That rate fell below 15% in 2000 and is now at an all time low—11.9% in 2007, which represents a 40% decline in the moving rate versus the average year between 1947 and 1969. Since people tend to move to areas of growth, which reinforces and strengthens economic development, this decline has consequences.

As the population of the country continues gets older—and older people are less likely to move—there will be further braking effects on mobility. In addition, the growing incidence of two worker couples impedes mobility. And while the current economic downturn is certainly slowing mobility, it does not explain the longer term trend. However, as the Baby Boomers start to retire in earnest beginning in the next five years, mobility rates could increase as they decide where to spend their golden years.

Existing owners with increasing home equity spur local economies…

Local economic impact

Markets with large population increases since 2000 show the highest rates of moving. High-growth markets not only see new households coming in, but they also have higher rates of local moving in the existing population. New migrants tend to bid up housing prices, making it more attractive for current owners to look to move up in the market. At the same time, existing owners with increasing home equity spur local economies by funding home improvement projects such as new kitchens or bathrooms.

However, when migration begins to decline, those local economic boons start to go away. Housing prices tend to remain stable—or even decline as has been seen in many markets over the past year. Less growth in home equity means that homeowners put off renovations that provide work for local contractors and sustain local economies.

By 2007, education was a much less powerful predictor of mobility…

Who is moving?

The profile of those who move has changed dramatically since 1990. Comparing the distribution of movers in the 1990 Census to the 2007 American Community Survey data (from the Census Bureau), there are several substantial differences:

  • In 1990, college-educated people were more likely to move than those with high school or lower levels of educational attainment. By 2007, education was a much less powerful predictor of mobility, and, in fact, those with graduate or professional degrees were the least likely to have moved. As manufacturing jobs have declined, more blue-collar workers have been forced to move seeking new employment elsewhere.

  • Blacks are much more likely to be movers in 2007 than in 1990. Hispanics also have a higher moving rate. Non-Hispanics whites have declining moving rates.

  • Households with a head in the 35-44 age range are still the most like to move, as they were in 1990. This likely reflects the loss of middle class jobs over the past several years. The concentration of movers in both the 35-44 and 45-54 age ranges has increased, while among those aged 55+, the concentration of movers has decreased.

  • While income wasn’t a very good predictor of mobility in 1990, it was a strong determiner in 2007. Households in the $20-50k ranges were much more likely to have moved in 2007 than the national average, while the lower-income ranges saw the concentration of movers fall by more than half.

The majority of living Americans will have few or no living biological relatives…

Why people move

According to the Pew survey, most people move for their job or business. Moving to a good place to raise children or for family ties are also frequently cited reasons. However, moving for family ties may be on the decline.

One of the often overlooked impacts of the aging U.S. population and its declining family sizes has to do with family ties. As families get smaller, children will have fewer brothers, sisters, and cousins. As this trend continues across generations, they will also have fewer aunts and uncles. Over time, this means that one day the majority of living Americans will have few or no living biological relatives. In countries like Italy—which are much further down the aging population/declining family size curves than the U.S. —fully 60% of children today have no biological relatives other than parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. As these children become adults, they will gradually lose them too.

This trend could increase rates of moving, particularly for reasons that are less important today, such as cost-of-living or climate. In addition, as the Baby Boom ages, they may also increase the number of moves made for cost-of-living, climate, or recreational activities.

States of attraction

There are fifteen states in which the majority of the current population was born outside the state. For these states that attract movers, expect to see a wider range of tastes and product preferences, influenced by shoppers from across the U.S.  And as the Baby Boom retires, these ‘magnet’ states will see even greater diversity within their populations—posing challenges to retailers who will need to stock more products that appeal to regional tastes from outside their own region.

There are eleven states in which more than 66% of the people born there never left. Pew calls these ‘sticky’ states because their native born residents tend to stay at home. Florida is the only state to appear in both lists—a state where people born there don’t want to leave, and many others want to come.

As the share of households with children has declined, so has the moving rate…

The future of mobility

Moving rates in the U.S. have tracked perhaps more closely with family size and the percent of households with children than with any other factor. The peak years of the Baby Boom—when nearly half of all households had children—were also the peak mobility years. As the share of households with children has declined, so has the moving rate. With fewer children, the need for larger homes has declined, pushing down the local (intra-county) moving rate in particular. Since the share of households who have children will continue to decline and will stay low for decades to come, there will be a continuing downward tug on mobility.

The current economic downturn will certainly slow moving rates among parts of the population. However, as the unemployment rate continues to rise, many workers may move in search of new opportunities. This will have advantageous impacts on markets receiving those workers, but will have doubly disadvantageous impacts on the markets that lose them. High rates of unemployment adversely impact sales of consumer products, but must-have staples still get purchased. And when workers leave, even those purchases are removed from the market.


U.S. Census Bureau Current Population SurveyU.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey

Pew Research Center – American Mobility:  Who Moves?  Who Stays Put?  Where’s Home? (12/29/2008)