A nomad nation settles down

Americans were once known for constantly being on the move. Recent trends indicate they are putting down roots whether they want to or not.

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    Rather than hitching up the U-Haul and moving to another state, more and more Americans staying put.
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Americans have always been known for their restlessness. Daniel Boone craved elbowroom. Huck Finn couldn’t wait to “light out for the territory.” The Joad family headed to California when the Dust Bowl became intolerable.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article attributed the "light out" quote to Tom Sawyer.]

When the going got tough, the tough packed the U-Haul. They had been encouraged to do so by bards who sang of the romance of the road and the wonders west of the Mississippi. Walt Whitman praised the “free original life there ... litheness, majestic faces, clear eyes, and perfect physique.” A century later, the Beach Boys hit the same sort of theme. Getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip? Easy enough to find a new place where the kids are hip.

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By relocating, Americans were able to pursue jobs where they sprang up, which helped capitalism boom. They were also able to carve out independent lives, seek out new civilizations, and boldly try avocados and surfboards for the first time. Mobility fed the melting pot, which fed the business and cultural dynamism of late-20th-century America.

Each year from the end of World War II to 1970, 1 in 5 Americans moved. The Sun Belt boom of the mid-1970s was one of the last great middle-class migrations. Now a profound change is under way. The number who relocate is falling steadily. It is getting closer to 1 in 10. While people around the world are on the move as never before, with far-reaching consequences (see this special report ), restless America is settling down.

For all the excitement and hope bundled into the idea of starting over in a golden land, Americans’ penchant for pulling up stakes has had its detractors. It was blamed for everything from the breakup of the extended family to social alienation. Think of the elderly waving goodbye as the nuclear family left for the other side of the country. Look at the blighted inner cities and ghost towns that transient culture leaves behind.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s 1995 book “Bowling Alone” saw the anonymity of American culture as bad for democracy and, among other things, as a source of growing distrust of government. Beyond its political dimension, the “tea party” movement may be the progeny of peripatetic America.

The new homebody boom, of course, is not necessarily by choice. Recession and the housing bust are big factors. Several million families are locked into mortgages on houses that they can’t sell without taking a loss. According to a recent study by the International Monetary Fund, that lack of mobility is preventing Americans from migrating to areas of the country where jobs are available.

The housing freeze will thaw at some point. Mortgage rates are enticingly low; fewer new houses are being built; bargains abound. Still, the lingering psychological effect of the recession along with population and lifestyle trends are almost certain to dampen wanderlust for the foreseeable future. The aging of the baby boomers (young people move more than older people), the rise of two-income families (relocating is a pain when two jobs are at stake), and the growing number of 20-somethings living with parents (and reluctant to start families) are trends that won’t quickly reverse themselves as the economy recovers.

Prediction: The next few decades will feature more books and songs about the wonders of your own backyard than about the pot of gold at the end of Interstate 80. The “staycation,” the “locavore” food movement, green-conscious renovating, the victory garden – all the hot trends now are on the sides of homebodies rather than nomads.

The idea of jumping in a Chevy and heading across country as Jack Kerouac and his dangerous pals did in the 1950s will still appeal to the young. There is an undoubted romance to it. The rest of us are likely to become friends of the branch library and eager browsers at the weekly farmers’ market, and be thrilled to find out that an awesome Beach Boys tribute band is coming to our VFW hall.

John Yemma is editor of
The Christian Science Monitor

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