America turns not-so-mobile

New statistics show a trend of fewer people moving each year.

Supposedly, today's workers live on the fast track: rootless, hard-charging, ready to move in an instant if it means a better job or higher pay.

What are Americans really doing? Staying put.

In fact, they're moving less than their parents did in the 1950s and 1960s. New government data released July 12 show that Americans are less likely to move than at any other time since the US Census Bureau began keeping track of such data in 1947.

The main forces at work: record levels of home ownership and an aging and increasingly sedentary population of baby boomers. But some analysts point to other factors too: the booming economy, which has made workers increasingly choosy, and an increasing emphasis on quality of life over career.

If the stay-at-home trend continues, it could affect everything from regional real-estate values to employee recruiting. But analysts are divided over what the future holds. New forms of work, such as telecommuting and Internet entrepreneurship, could just as easily reverse Americans' increasing propensity to stick with the home they have.

"The idea that people have to live close to their work will become less important," says William Frey, demographer at the Milken Institute, a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. But "it's an open question whether the New Economy and technology will increase migration."

According to the new data from the Census Bureau, some 43 million Americans changed residences between March 1998 and March 1999. That amounts to 15.9 percent of the population, hardly changed from the 16.0 percent a year earlier. Nevertheless, it represents an important drop compared with the 1985 peak, when 20.2 percent of Americans moved, and a continuation of the 15-year downward trend.

"There's no one factor that you can put your finger on," says Carol Faber, author of the report.

Most analysts agree, however, that the aging of baby boomers is key. As a rule, Americans move more when they're young. Last year, for example, nearly one-third of people in their 20s changed residences; only 5 percent of those 65 and over moved.

"We sort of have a bigger chunk of the population who are stable, sedentary baby boomers," says Mr. Frey.

Another important factor: More Americans own homes than ever before. In the first quarter of this year, home ownership reached a record 67.1 percent, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Once families buy a house, they're much less likely to move. Renters last year were more than three times as likely to change homes than homeowners were.

Most moves are local. Growing families trade up to a bigger house. Empty-nesters look for something smaller. Roughly two-thirds of Americans who pull up stakes stay in the same county.

But when Americans do cross state lines, they typically head for the same sunny locales. In the year ended March 1999, the South scored the biggest gain of any region, attracting a net in-migration of 270,000 people.

One of the unknowns remains the economy. On one hand, good times and plentiful jobs might encourage many families to move more often in search of an ideal location, some analysts argue.

"You'd think over this decade with a nearly full-employment economy you would have seen a turn up" in the rate of moves, says Charles Longino, a demographer at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Yet the evidence so far suggests otherwise.

"Many more managers and executives are choosing lifestyle over money or even job if it comes to that," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an international outplacement firm based in Chicago. "That translates into not being the good corporate soldiers they once were believed to be."

Moreover, dual-income families typically have to find two new jobs when they move, not one.

As evidence of this desire to stay put, less than one-quarter of the laid-off executives and managers who come to Mr. Challenger are willing to relocate to find a job. In 1993, roughly one-third said they would move. "Even among driven people, this hot job market seems to have wiped out that attitude," he adds.

Take Randy and Deirdre Nixon, who moved to Portland, Ore., in 1997 after Randy landed a research post in a local university hospital. A year later, the couple was tempted to move to Medford, Ore., where a private company was offering him a job at 2-1/2 times his current salary.

Not only would the extra cash have quickly paid down thousands of dollars in school loans, it would have stretched far further in low-cost Medford than in high-priced Portland. But after six months of thinking about it, the Nixons decided to stay.

"It wasn't worth giving up our friends and my husband's research," Mrs. Nixon says. "We thought this was much more valuable."

But things can change. Surveys by ActivMedia, an Internet market-research firm in Peterborough, N.H., suggest online Americans in the 21st century will move to the hinterlands, reversing centuries of population flow to cities.

And a turn for the worse in the economy could force workers to search for new homes.

"If people find themselves financially pinched..., there will be more push the other way," Challenger says, "but less than before. I think you will find more people who have made the decision long term: This is how they intend to live their life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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