Despite a long recovery and record streak of job growth, the share of Americans moving to a new location continued a steady decline in 2017, reaching a new post-World War II low, an indicator of a less mobile workforce that reflects both an aging society and economic problems facing younger workers.
The decline marked the fifth straight year in which the share of the population moving dropped. In 2017, the number fell to 11%, according to the Census Bureau. The level was nearly twice as high in 1985, 20%, but has fallen steadily, except for occasional cyclical zigzags, for the last three decades.
For decades, high rates of mobility sharply distinguished the U.S. from other developed economies in Europe and Japan. The decline in mobility is due partly to what has become a less-dynamic and fluid American labor market, some economists believe.
The decline also reflects social and demographic factors such as an aging population and declining birth rates; older people tend to stay put more and starting families often motivates people to go out on their own.
But economics has pushed the trend: Even though the job fortunes of young adults have improved after several difficult years following the Great Recession, many are still living in their parents' homes or stuck in apartments with multiple roommates.
Stricter requirements for mortgages and large student debts may be keeping some from homeownership. But high prices, particularly in larger urban centers favored by young adults, also play a role. Builders have tended to bank on more-profitable, higher-priced houses or luxury apartments, and that's helped exacerbate a shortage of affordable homes in many cities.
"I've been waiting for now a long time for these young people to get out of their parents' basement," said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who compiled and analyzed the census statistics, which cover the period between March 2016 and March 2017 and also include a sliver of foreign migration in the U.S.
Part of the slowing mobility could be a lifestyle issue, Frey said. "Maybe a little bit of inertia based on having not followed the norm of earlier generations." Still, given all the economic improvements, he added, "it's stunning to see the overall mobility the lowest ever."
There was, however, an encouraging sign in the data: Even as local moves, that is within counties, fell to a record low, pushing down total domestic migration, the percentage of the population relocating from one state to another picked up slightly over the last year. Those long-distance moves are driven largely by job changes, and the last year saw noticeable mobility gains on the part of adults 25 to 34 years old, those with college degrees and older people, according to Frey.
In recent decades, the rate at which firms create new jobs has fallen; so has the rate at which they eliminate positions, said Steven J. Davis, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Both trends discourage workers from moving.
"Lower gross job destruction rates mean less impetus from one's labor market experience to pick up and move locations," he said. "At the same time, lower gross job creation rates mean less opportunity to find a job in a new location."
Some analysts say the recently signed GOP tax overhaul, and President Trump's efforts to reduce government regulations on business, could help strengthen the "creative destruction" in the American economy and spur migration. The tax bill, which mostly benefits corporations, is expected to increase economic growth next year. That could give a boost to mobility and in turn a lift to the housing market.
"My sense is that we are on the verge of a little boomlet coming," said Los Angeles housing economist G.U. Krueger, principal of Krueger Economics. "With that and some of the baby boomers exiting the labor market, there will be a lot of young people who will be moving around."
Just how much people will pull up stakes and relocate as a result of economic growth remains to be seen, however. No one expects a major reversal of the long-running trend of lower mobility, in part because of strong demographic trends that include slower overall population growth.
Separate census data released last week showed that as of July, the U.S. population rose by 2.3 million from the prior year to 325.7 million. That's an annual growth rate of 0.72% — the second lowest since 1937.
California's population increased by 0.61% from the prior year, slightly lower than the year before. Western states including Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Washington saw the fastest growth, while four states saw an overall decline in population, Illinois plus three states heavily dependent on declining energy industries — Wyoming, West Virginia and Alaska.
The slowing growth of the U.S. population reflects a steady decline in births and growing numbers of deaths. The resulting natural increase over the year was 1.2 million, the smallest in at least 17 years.
Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School, estimates that the Great Recession resulted in 4 million fewer births than what otherwise might have been. With the economy growing, some women who are in their 30s and who put off having children earlier could do so now and give a bump to the natural increase in the population.
Still, lingering effects from the recession and demographics suggest that many people will remain tethered to where they are. Young people account for the bulk of moves, and the U.S., like other developed countries, is aging, Johnson pointed out.