A not-so-mobile society

When Tom Williams was recently offered a huge salary increase to move to the Houston office of his engineering company, his answer took a matter of seconds. "I said, 'No way Jose, we've finally settled in here. I'm not doing that to the kids,' " says the father of two. Wife Karen is active in the PTA, both kids play soccer in local leagues, and the couple just refinanced to build a second floor for their ranch-style house in L.A.

Mr. Williams's response and his family's profile fit a US trend that has been growing steadily for five decades and has ratcheted up significantly in recent years: Americans are moving at the lowest rates in half a century - a phenomenon backed up by fresh data from the Census Bureau. The 40 million Americans who moved between 2002 and 2003 make up just 14 percent of the population, compared with 20 percent in 1948. Most of the slowdown in moving has come in recent years.

Though there have been zigs and zags related to economic factors such as interest rates, housing costs, and job opportunities, the general tendency to stay put is clear, analysts say. Thanks to the aging baby boom generation, the median age of the US population is now higher than ever (35.3 compared with 30.2 in 1950) - one indicator of wanting to settle down. In addition, more people are deferring marriage and families. And as more purchase and furnish higher-priced homes at later ages, more and more are ruling out a move. (In 1955, 55 percent lived in houses compared with 66 percent now.)

"These are very compelling findings because one of America's defining characteristics since the beginning has been that we are big movers," says Michael Haines, professor of history and economics at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Part of the American dream has always been to own a home, he and others add. Now, more people than ever do, and they seem happier to do so right where they are.

"The multimillions of babies born after World War II have grown up and are finding themselves in the middle of their life cycles living where they want to be," says Professor Haines. "They've found the communities they want, the school districts for their kids, and have unpacked their bags for good."

A tapering flow

Although the three-decade tilt of population from the Northeast and Midwest to the West and Southwest continues, the numbers are diminishing. Between 2002 and 2003, according to the report ("Geographic Mobility: 2002 to 2003"), the Midwest and Northeast lost about 100,000 in domestic migration, while the South and West gained 125,000 and 75,000 respectively.

Job and income parity between the states has evened up nationally in recent years as well, according to a recent study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

"The great disparity in incomes between various sections of the country has been converging," says Michael Carliner, economist for NAHB, "which means the incentives for people to leave the Midwest, New England, and mid-Atlantic states for better fortunes elsewhere is reduced."

The number of moves has also been slowed by the perception that the wide-open frontier spaces are filling up. Demographers cite the sprawls of Phoenix and Las Vegas and the rising pollution/congestion/crime quotients there.

That perception, real or imagined, at some point will alter what some see as Americans' unique ability to move away from both congestion and problems and begin life anew somewhere else.

"One theory of American exceptionalism is that we have always had this frontier and geographic safety valve where people could move to get away from their problems," says Robert Fisher of Urban Community Studies Program at the University of Connecticut. Europe, by contrast, did not have the same kind of frontier, and so mobility quotients have always been far lower, he says.

"I don't think the numbers here are strong enough to suggest a major change in the culture just yet," says Mr. Fisher. "But it is clear that it is developing in that direction."

Those who do decide to move are moving further away than ever before. In 2003, 19 percent of all moves were to a different state, up from 16 percent in 1994. That suggests that those who do move aren't considering just from snowy Boston to snowy Dedham, Mass., for instance, but a rather a more radical change from mountains/forests/ocean to deserts/dryness/sun.

"When we looked through 'Places Rated Almanac' to decide where we wanted to move, we were looking for a dramatic change in quality of life and the dream home we always wanted," says Joyce Gioia, president of the Herman Group, a think tank of futurists in Greensboro, N.C. "My observation is that 9/11 has helped many people reset their value buttons and begin to look at what is really important in life. Many are saying, 'I don't want to live where I am not comfortable anymore.' "

Sinking roots early

Both the census and NAHB studies find that those same attitudes translate into a decline in mobility in all age groups, including the steepest drop of all among 20- to 29-year-olds - traditionally the cohort with the highest mobility rates (30 percent of this age group moved between 2002 and 2003). Since 1995, moves by 20- to 24-year-olds declined 3.7 percent and those by 25- to 29-year-olds dropped 5.1 percent. That change reflects a decision by more young people to move back to their parents' homes after college to save money.

For all age groups, a major factor has been the sluggish economy. In the shifting uncertainty over jobs, as well as the Iraq war and international terrorism, many see the quest for home and stability as a quest for certainty amid chaos.

"Americans like the safety and comfort of their own real estate when the going gets tough. and the perception out there now is that uncertainty in the world is increasing," says Ted Jones, chairman of the Houston Association of Realtors. Since 1954, the average US home value has increased 5.6 percent a year, he says - a perceived economic and social haven.

"It's logical that people want something that stocks can't diminish and that Wall Street can't steal," says Mr. Jones. "People in all 50 states are going back to their roots, picking the place they always wanted to live and staying there."

Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina received the most population from 1995 to 2000, and the largest outflow of one state to another was 308,000, from New York to Florida. The second largest state-to-state migration was from New York to suburban New Jersey (207,000).

All of the above translates into warning signals for employers hoping to entice workers to new areas of the country by building new plants in unpopulated areas, or simply choosing a once-popular Western destination and hoping for the best.

"This new data suggest to us very real concerns about the flexibility of the US economy," says Mr. Carliner of the NAHB. "The old saying, 'build it and they will come' is not as salient anymore."

Whatever the causes, most analysts say the trend will continue. An increase in home owning begets even more home owning, according to the NAHB. And that has meant soaring sales of both existing and new homes: Existing home sales have grown to record levels, reaching 6.1 million annually (up 19 percent since 2000), and new-home sales have hit 1.2 million annually (up 23 percent since 2002).

"It's not clear to us whether people are buying homes because they are not moving or not moving because they are buying homes, but it is clear that the two go together," says Carliner.

"We're not moving because we've finally got the house and neighborhood we want," says Karen Williams. "We could use the extra salary [offered to husband Tom], but we can use the stability more."

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