Generation Stuck: Why Don't Young People Move, Anymore?

The real reason why the Go-Nowhere Generation isn't going anywhere

[Update: In this comment section and on our Facebook page, we're collecting stories about Americans moving -- and not moving. Write your own, and I'll publish a collection in a new post this week.]

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Young adults are part of a "Go-Nowhere Generation," Todd and Victoria Buccholz wrote in a New York Times essay yesterday that's going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

This much is true: Americans are increasingly stuck and reluctant to move to cities where they might be better off. Twentysomethings have typically moved more than older families, but we're moving far less than we used to, as you can see in the graph of migration rates just under this paragraph, from Brookings. But the authors are being tendentious when they suggest that the decline of driver's licenses represents the most important cultural shift in a generation. (Really?) And they're being downright silly when they write that Facebook is a root cause of economic stagnation, or that the word "random" offers keen insight into Millennials' outlook on the innate disorder of the modern marketplace. (Really??)

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Once you strip away the pop-science, there is a good and big point at the heart of this piece: Americans don't move around like we used to. Why? And should we worry?


Like the fall in homeownership, and the decline of marriage, the slowdown in American migration is a long-term trend that accelerated in the recession. But there is something peculiar about our current state of statism. Americans are most likely to move long distances when they are (a) young, (b) single, and (c) renters. We have plenty of young people. We have a historic number of singles. With home ownership gutted, rents are rising across the country. So, why aren't we moving more?

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Let's start with cost. Getting around is cheap. But moving is expensive. It's not just a $20 bus to Billings. There are emotional and psychological costs to uprooting your life and starting fresh in a city without social or professional connections. You need some degree of bravery of certainty that things will work out. Today, young people have less economic insurance to bet on a big move these days. Wages for the young are falling, student debt is rising, and twentysomethings are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the country. This kind of economic uncertainty works as an anchor on national migration.

Alright, you might say, so that's an argument for these kids to move somewhere they can get a job. But where is that, exactly? All the old affordable places were blighted by the downturn. Riverside, Phoenix, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, and Las Vegas were among the ten most popular cities for interstate migrants each year in the mid-2000s. But by 2009, these were the worst-hit metros in the recession. By 2010, Florida's net migration had stopped entirely. The Buccholz's say: "Move to North Dakota!" Let's be sensible. North Dakota is tiny. It's the population of Washington, D.C. It can't support millions of migrants, and it's straining to support the migration it's already got. Rents are rising -- even doubling and tripling! -- in parts of the Dakotas, as an oil and mining boom meets limited housing stock to create a run on rents.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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