(November 2003) Advertisements for cellular phones make us think we are an increasingly mobile nation, but demographers conclude we’re becoming a less mobile society. Which statement is right, and why does it matter?

It is true that we are becoming more mobile in the length of our commutes to work. But the measure of mobility that demographers use — the frequency of long-distance residential moves (across county lines) — is slowing down.

Kimberlee Shauman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California–Davis, followed up on research by demographer Larry Long showing that we have become less mobile over the past four decades. Shauman delved into the reasons for the trend and into its implications.

“The consequences depend on the causes. That’s why we need to understand what the causes are,” she said.

Shauman studied population characteristics previously linked to long-distance moves to determine how changes in each were related to declining mobility between 1981 and 2002. She examined employment, age, education, income, and number of children for 294,174 married couples and 389,634 unmarried individuals (never married, divorced, widowed, or separated). She analyzed the two groups separately because migration patterns for married couples are very different from those for single adults, who tend to be more mobile.

What she discovered was that married women’s participation in the work force and the aging of heads of household constituted the greatest drags on long-distance moves.

Women increasingly hold full-time jobs, decreasing their readiness to make long-distance moves that advance their husbands’ careers. The proportion of dual-earner and dual-career married couples (the difference between the two hinging on the type of work they do: dual-career couples are those in which both partners work full-time at managerial and professional jobs; dual-earner couples include at most one partner working in a managerial or professional job but both people working full-time) rose from 20 percent in 1981 to 42 percent in 2002. Families headed by couples in which both partners are employed full-time are roughly 40 percent less likely to migrate than single-earner families.

Aging also factors into reduced mobility. Young people — ages 18 to 29 — are the ones who typically make long-distance moves as they leave home for college, establish their independence, and marry or start families; children, middle-age people, and older people are generally less mobile. The average age of household heads has risen over the past 21 years (see figure), reducing the likelihood of long-distance moves.

Graying of Household Heads

What Are the Societal Consequences of Fewer Moves?

Depressed migration because of the aging of the population will have minimal consequences for the geographic distribution of labor. “People in the labor market are likely to be quite mobile; it’s just that the population is weighted toward people who are either established in their careers or are retired and have moved to a retirement destination, and they’re not moving anymore,” said Shauman. “We’ll have growing retirement communities where residents are staying put, and we see that in the Sun Belt and in the West and in the South,” she said.

Low mobility could also have consequences for the strength of communities. “We could have growing community ties if people are staying in one area. There is some indication that, in less mobile areas, there is a higher proportion of people who are very involved in local politics and local schools and things like that,” Shauman said.

The increase in families where two people are working probably means that people are not able to move as readily, either to leave areas where jobs have become scarce or to take advantage of better job opportunities. But it also could mean that, since there has been an increase in dual-earner and dual-career couples, families are a little bit more insulated from the shock of losing a job. “If one partner in the couple loses a job, it is a hit to the family, but they have this other source of income, so they’re not as likely to pick up and move quickly,” Shauman said.

Shauman’s research did not include the foreign-born, whose mobility patterns are very different. Asked about what she foresees for the country as a whole, Shauman said: “If we, U.S. citizens, are becoming less mobile, then our reliance on immigrants to fill jobs at all levels of the labor market will increase.” Economists speculate, she said, that immigrants will be more likely to make long-distance moves and could perhaps benefit from the declining mobility of the U.S.-born population. 

Allison Tarmann is senior editor at PRB.