Why Do Americans Move So Much More Than Europeans?

How the national mythos and U.S. labor laws influence geographic mobility.

Noah Berger / Reuters

Kevin Bacon moves from a big city to a small town in Middle America where dancing is outlawed. Ralph Macchio moves from New Jersey to California, where he learns the art of life and combat. Dianne Wiest moves with her two sons to a California town stocked with vampires.

The trope of American families settling in faraway places isn’t just a plotline for terrible 1980s movies, but a national phenomenon. Decades of data, including a more recent Gallup study, characterizes the United States as one of the most geographically mobile countries in the world. “About one in four U.S. adults (24 percent) reported moving within the country in the past five years,” the report noted. With the comparable exceptions of Finland (23 percent) and Norway (22 percent), Americans also move considerably more than their European peers.

Percentage of Respondents Who Moved Cities/Regions in the Past Five Years

Gallup, 2013

The American tendency toward transience isn’t confined to long-distance movement either. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average person in the United States moves residences more than 11 times in his or her lifetime. Though hard data is difficult to come by, according to a survey conducted by the real-estate company Re/Max earlier this year, that figure across 16 European countries is roughly four.

Though some may move for love or family, the overwhelming reason Americans choose to move around is, unsurprisingly, related to work. Citing supplemental data from the the Current Population Survey, a post on the blog of the New York Fed this week noted that between 1998 and 2013,“slightly more than half of interstate migrants said they moved for employment-related reasons—a category that includes moves undertaken for new jobs, job transfers, and easier commutes.”

From Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush to Okies going west and the growers of the Green Rush, the seeking of distant opportunity, particularly for an immigrant nation, is part of a national mythology as well as a broader American fixation with work. A new working paper dissected by Ben Steverman at Bloomberg suggests that workers in the U.S. now “put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans” in a given year. This figure has steadily risen since the 1970s, when the hours logged by workers in Western Europe and the United States were roughly the same. (Meanwhile, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation every single year, and 41 percent of Americans who have paid vacation days squander them.)

There are, of course, some logistical factors too. The United States is much vaster than most European countries, plus it boasts a common language. It is considered to be a sign of an efficient labor market that U.S. workers can be enticed to move to regions where there is steady job growth, such as the Sun Belt in recent years. And while American workers often have fewer labor protections than their European counterparts, as a report by the World Bank noted in 2012, American “labor laws give employers the power to fire, hire, or relocate workers according to their needs,” a flexibility that is thought to aid growth.  The World Bank report added that the median tenure of the average U.S. employee in 2006 was 4 years, compared to 10 years in the European Union.

Nevertheless, while Americans remain disproportionately mobile, Fatih Karahan and Darius Li at the New York Fed are the latest to note that U.S. workers are moving around less than before. During the 1980s, 3 percent of working-age Americans relocated to a different state each year; that figure had been cut in half by 2010. “While part of the decline can be attributed to the Great Recession,” the authors suggest, “the bulk of this phenomenon took place over the course of several decades and is unlikely to be related to the business cycle.”

So why are more people staying put? A round-up of theories by Brad Plumer at The Washington Post included the aging of the U.S. workforce (older workers are less apt to move), the further rise of two-income households (logistics are tougher when there are two earners), the burdens of real estate (read: underwater mortgages and high rents), evolving workplace culture (telecommuting is more acceptable than ever), as well as the flatlining of wages, which makes  moving away for a job, on average, a less rewarding financial proposition.

Karahan and Li put much stock in the effects of an aging workforce, to which they attribute “at least half” of the decline in interstate migration. “In short, a young individual today is moving less than a young person did in the 1980s because of the higher presence of older workers,” they write, suggesting that employers have shifted their recruitment tactics to adapt to the changing demographics of the workforce. Needless to say, movies about this era in American life, in which fewer people set out to start lives in far-flung places, will probably be much less exhilarating.