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Americans are moving less than ever before

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After 40 years of steady declines in domestic migration, mobility has hit a new all-time low

Three row houses sit on a San Francisco street. Getty Images/EyeEm

The United States has historically been a country with a high rate of mobility, as cities used their unique job markets to attract new residents, and young couples bought new houses to accommodate children. But this might be changing.

That’s according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau that show domestic migration has hit a new all-time low in 2019 of 9.8 percent of the population. This follows decades of steady declines. During the 1960s, 20 percent of Americans moved to a new residence each year. In 2019, less than 10 percent of Americans did.

And while the drivers of these declines have evolved and changed through the years, the current drop is being driven by millennials, who are delaying life stages that typically prompt someone to move, such as buying a house, getting married, and having kids.

“The national trend [of declines in domestic migration] is especially reflected among millennials or young adults,” said William Frey of the Brookings Institute. “That’s what’s driving the real overall decline in migration.”

Looking at the data around moving broken down by distance, there are declines in each category—moves within a county, moves out of a county, moves out of state, and moves coming in from outside the United States—but moves within a county show the biggest decline.

And that decline is most pronounced among renters. In 1997, 32.9 percent of renters moved, with 22.1 percent moving within the county. In 2019, just 19.7 percent of renters moved, with 11.9 percent moving within a county.

Why are these declines happening? Moves within a county are usually related to housing or family—78.5 percent of all intracounty movers in 2019 cited family or housing as the reason they moved. For movers who left their county in 2019, that number drops to 60.9 percent because a third of movers cite employment as the reason for the move; someone moving a long distance most likely got a new job.

The share of movers saying they did so because of a change in marital status, or because they wanted to wanted to own instead of rent, has been steadily dropping. At the same time, the share saying they moved because they were forming their own household has jumped. This all points to migration dropping because millennials are delaying life stages like marriage and parenthood.

People have been generally moving out of cities and rural areas, and into suburbs, as suburbs have seen net increases in migration of at least 2 million since 1987. But this year, for the first time since 1998, rural areas drew more residents from cities and suburbs than they lost. Regionally, the northeast has lost residents to migration every year since 2001, while the south has gained residents from migration every year since 2001.

There are a number of macroeconomic factors that could be contributing to the current patterns of migration. Housing costs are at all-time highs in a number of cities that have historically been destination spots, like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This discourages people from moving in, and encourages the people there to move out to suburbs.

While those major cities have become hubs for the highest paying jobs, job markets have generally gotten more homogeneous, meaning people don’t necessarily need to move to a specific city to pursue a career in their field, although there are certainly still examples of this, such as the finance industry in New York and the tech industry in San Francisco.

Frey says that longer distance moves have been declining, but have bounced around within a range, as opposed to in county migration, which has been steadily nose diving. Because of this, he believes that the decline of longer distance moves may have reached an equilibrium point, especially given they are reflective of broader shifts in the economy, which aren’t likely to reverse.

But he’s continually expected in-county moves to tick back up because many millennials who have held off on homeownership, marriage, and parenthood will eventually pursue them, which will prompt moves.

“[Millennials] may make some catchup moves at some point,” he said.