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Why Don't Young People Move, Anymore?

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

615 moving reuters silhouette.jpg
615 moving reuters silhouette.jpg


We are the Go-Nowhere Generation, Todd and Victoria Buccholz wrote in the New York Times yesterday that's going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

The authors are right when they observe that Americans are increasingly stuck and reluctant to move to cities where they might be better off. But they're being tendentious when they suggest that the decline of driver's licenses represents the most important cultural shift in a generation. 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.

But once you strip away the pop-science, there is a good, big point at the heart of this piece: Americans don't move around like they 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?

Let's start with cost. Moving is expensive. (Rents are, after all, rising across the country.) 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. Alright, you'd say, so that's an argument for these kids to move somewhere they can get a job.

The trouble there is that all the old affordable places were blighted with 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 arguably the worst-hit metros in the recession. By 2010, Florida's net migration had stopped entirely. Okay, the Buccholz's say, then these kids should move to North Dakota. Too late. 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. "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."

The ten-year story is that 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. Cities staged something of a comeback.

Screen Shot 2012-03-12 at 12.13.39 PM.png
Screen Shot 2012-03-12 at 12.13.39 PM.png

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 engine of national migration and we should want them to 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 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.

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