The crowd split down the middle of the dance floor at the class of 1950-something high school reunion. Half the graduates of the midsize Midwestern public school class had left town after high school, half had stayed behind.
According to a new study led by University of Michigan psychologist Abigail Stewart, that choice made a real difference in how their lives turned out.
After surveying 290 male and female graduates now in their early 60s, Ms. Stewart concluded that, "People who leave their hometowns after high school are less likely to have traditional families. They are drawn to diversity and comfortable with it. And they're successful at navigating a more impersonal world."
The research team, led by Stewart and U-M psychologist David Winter, also conducted in-person interviews with 77 graduates. The high school was a relatively diverse one. It served poor neighborhoods populated by African-American and European-American families and some post-World War II immigrants, as well as middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
To compare trends, researchers matched 19 pairs of "stayers" and "leavers" based on gender, race, and their family's social class in the 1950s - then analyzed the differences between the lives and attitudes of those who left and those they left behind.
Of the graduates who left town, about half eventually settled somewhere else in the Midwest. Those who went farther afield tended toward the West Coast.
The survey compared the responses of the 153 who stayed in the Midwest with the 72 who moved farther away.
They found that 62 percent of "stayers" had "traditional families," meaning they had married and stayed married to one person, and the pair had children. Only 42 percent of "leavers" had such families.
The study found that that those who left eventually attained, on average, higher education levels and social-class status than those who stayed behind.
But it's hard to know the degree to which those differences were caused by moving. In their report, Stewart and Mr. Winter acknowledge that the moving may have only "amplif[ied] any initial differences between those initially disposed to leave and those who stay."