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.

"The recent sharp downturn in Americans' mobility can be attributed to the bursting housing bubble and the financial crisis that precipitated a global recession," Brookings demographer William Frey wrote in the study that gifted the graphs in this post. "These forces left Americans flat-footed, as would-be movers were unable to find financing to buy a new home, buyers for their existing homes, or employment in more desirable areas."

Before the recession, U.S. migration resembled a river flowing from Boston to Tucson, from urban to suburban, from high-cost, highly-educated metros to lower-cost cities with lower-income residents. Arizona and Nevada led the nation in percent growth, adding nearly a third of their year-2000 population in a decade. After the recession, U.S. migration came to a standstill. Suburban growth collapsed. Unemployment shot up in Arizona and Nevada, and housing prices collapsed. Meanwhile, expensive cities staged something of a comeback.

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In the coming years, Frey writes, Millennials will make up 40 percent of adult migrants. What's important, contra the Buccholz's, isn't that these Millennials move, but where they move. As Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias have both pointed out in recent books on housing policy, the country's most productive cities have restrictive regulations on multi-family home building. That is driving up rents and discouraging talented middle-income people from settling in San Francisco and New York. Young educated workers are the engine of national migration, and we should hope they want to move to cities where they can be surrounded by similarly young and educated workers.

The U.S. economy is still emerging from a hunker-down/holding-pattern period. More generations are living under the same roof. Young people are underpaid, underemployed, and high in student debt, while the most productive cities are getting too expensive to afford, and the old popular destinations for lower-income movers are still in a de facto recession. The decline of interstate migration is complicated, and I'm sure there is more to it than I've described. I'd welcome your input. But a proper discussion of why kids aren't renting more U-Hauls should probably focus more on the money going into our pockets, and less on the idioms coming out of our mouths.