The Value of Homebodies

Britain asks if it can can afford US-style moving rate

For the English, staying put is in their bones. Especially for Adrian Targett.

Five years ago, the school teacher in the village of Cheddar (as in cheese) was told by scientists that a DNA test showed that he was a descendant of "Cheddar Man," a 9,000-year-old skeleton discovered in a cave only a half-mile from his home.

Mr. Targett is one apple that didn't fall very far from the tree. In fact, two-thirds of Britons still live less than an hour's drive from their parents. Almost half live within the city or town where they were born.

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This strong desire to stick close to hearth and home may have pushed Britain ahead of the United States in the proportion of businesses providing remote digital access to their workers. Such data was gathered recently by a think tank charged by Prime Minister Tony Blair to ask if Britain should become more like the US and create a more mobile society. A study was released in June.

Nomads = higher productivity

There's little doubt that higher economic productivity in the US springs partly from the willingness of nomadic Americans to pick up sticks and move to better match their skills to the best, highest-paying jobs. A peripatetic nation of settlers and immigrants has only replaced their covered wagons with U-Haul trucks to keep pursuing the American dream.

Among industrial nations, the US has the highest mobility rate, with 16 percent of households changing addresses annually. Finland, which officially requires its unemployed to be ready to move for a job, ranks second at 14 percent. Germany has the lowest mobility, and, in fact, has 1 million job openings and 4 million jobless.

The Blair government, ever mindful of adopting the best from America, is worried that Britain's 10 percent rate is too low. The highly skilled may be settling for low-skill jobs.

The British government study suggests that this lower rate may help account for chronic unemployment, unequal wealth across regions, longer commutes, a slow rate of social mobility, and a rise in urban congestion and environmental decay.

But rather than aping the US by creating government incentives for more people to move, the study also considers whether geographic mobility also comes with high social costs, mainly in the loss of local networks of family and friends, and disrupted lives for schoolchildren. Or, more generally, a loss of trust that damages the country in unforeseen ways.

Chasing roots

It's a question the US should also ask. In fact, Harvard scholar Robert Putnam pointedly highlights the steady loss of American neighborliness, family ties, and civic life during the last half of the 20th century in his famous book "Bowling Alone," published in 2000. (He symbolically points to fewer people joining bowling leagues.)

But perhaps Americans are today more willing to put down roots than chase a career across the country. The moving rate has declined from nearly 20 percent during the three decades after World War II to its 16 percent rate today.

Much of that decline is because of an aging population. But businesses are also facing an increasing reluctance among workers, especially two-career couples, to take a promotion or job in another city.

One poll shows a sharp rise in the number of people defining their American dream in spiritual rather than material terms: the number increased from one-third of adults in the boom-boom '90s to more than half after the shock of Sept. 11. You don't need a physical move to fulfill that dream.

Many people simply switch jobs within metro areas without moving, which argues for more mass transit and less car commuting. The British study notes the Internet and cheaper airfares create more social bonds.

It also notes a new government program called LAWN that helps families from crowded London learn firsthand about boroughs in the Midlands and the North as a way to entice them to move but also to quickly find a fit into a community.

The study concludes that easing the burden of moving and the transitional social costs would both boost productivity and help reduce a loss of "social capital" (a term Putnam uses).

The Mr. Targetts of England may wonder at the wisdom of all this. But then where would the English be if nomadic tribes on the Continent hadn't packed up their fur skins and sought greener pastures across the Channel?

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