Sam Dresser: The increasingly mobile US is a myth that needs to move on

The evidence that mobility has declined is more robust for roughly the past 65 years, thanks to annual census-bureau mass surveys. Around 1950, about 20 per cent of Americans changed homes from one year to the next. In the 1980s, under 18 per cent did. By the 2000s, under 15 per cent – and now we are approaching annual moving rates of only 10 per cent. About two-thirds of movers do not go far, relocating within the same county, and the frequency of such local moves has dropped by about half since the Second World War. The proportion of Americans who move across county and state lines is considerably lower, but that rate, too, has dropped substantially, from about 6.5 per cent in the 1950s to under 4 per cent now.

This trend toward staying in place has accelerated since 2001. Why? The geographer Thomas J Cooke at the University of Connecticut largely credits the economic crisis, but he argues that mobility would still have declined in any event because of a general societal trend toward ‘increased rootedness’. The economists Raven Molloy, Christopher L Smith and Abigail Wozniak have speculated that perhaps technological changes have made telecommuting easier and therefore moving for job reasons is less necessary. Another explanation offered is that US communities have become so similar in terms of employment that there’s no financial point in moving. But, in short, no clear explanation has yet emerged for what many economists, as I discuss later, consider a problem.

From: The increasingly mobile US is a myth that needs to move on | Aeon Essays

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21 thoughts on “Sam Dresser: The increasingly mobile US is a myth that needs to move on

  1. The population is getting older as the baby boomers age.

    Further it’s easier to find your “tribe” now days. Be it role playing games, a minority religion, or whatever you’re into, you’re one internet search away from finding your fellows.

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    • Your point about the aging population is well taken. People do tend to move around more when they’re young. I certainly did.

      But I don’t see the Internet as a big factor here, given that it appears to be a long, gradual, decline over many decades whereas the Internet has only been a big deal for about twenty years. (Seems like forever though huh?)

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      • Regarding the aging population, the author says:

        Nor can demographic changes, such as a growing aged population, explain the long-term trend.

        And then later:

        Moving rates decline as people age: only about 4 per cent of senior citizens move in a year.

        But nowhere does he explain why those two observations, taken together, don’t explain at least part of the decline. For example, if he were citing age-adjusted rates such that young people now are moving less than young people in the fifties, then that first statement quoted would make sense. But unless I missed it I don’t see that in the essay.

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  2. Illustrating once again that economists aren’t necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer:

    The economists Raven Molloy, Christopher L Smith and Abigail Wozniak have speculated that perhaps technological changes have made telecommuting easier and therefore moving for job reasons is less necessary.

    Telecommuting has only really been a thing since the spread of Internet access starting in the nineties, and judging by the commuter traffic I’m forced to wade through at times, not a great factor even now. How the heck do they imagine that to be a cogent explanation for trends going back at least 50 years?

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    • I have spent many an hour meditating on the extent to which outsourcing has set a number of precedents with regards to telecommuting… and the reasons that telecommuting hasn’t replaced outsourcing outright.

      The tradeoff, of course, is the difference between competence and price.

      You want the best g-darn Front Line Unix Support guy you can get? Well, you’re probably going to pay mid-to-high five figures for him in the US (and maybe six, depending on the part of the country you’re in). And that’s just for front line! You want core support? You’re paying more.

      Except… what if you’re willing to outsource to another country? You can pay two people’s salaries for what you’re paying the guy in the US *AND* you don’t have to provide infrastructure or benefits so that’s even more money in your pocket. Heck, maybe three or four people depending on the strength of the dollar and what part of the world you’re going for. Sure, the skills aren’t going to be equal, but front line unix support is only front line unix support. You can make checklists, procedures, and flowcharts and be able to take care of 80% of the problems without incident. Why *WOULDN’T* you do that? Well, other than the other 20%.

      Well, you get the right 20% and you get the right realization that it’s more like 30%, you might be tempted to split the difference and pay for someone skilled but say “well, let’s just pocket the savings of having to pay for bathrooms with handrails” and allow telecommuting.

      I have one friend, for example, who does spool support from his home for several different companies. He’s an employee, not a contractor, but his company doesn’t have to pay for a building or a cubicle or any of that stuff on his account. They get to pay a wage that is in line with the industry standard, they get to offer competitive benefits, they don’t have to pay for a building or cubicle furniture or anything. No overhead, as far as my buddy is concerned.

      I’m hoping that more and more companies figure out that there are a lot of benefits to paying someone to do a job but not paying for them to come in.

      Of course, you pretty much need really strong metrics (if not deliverables) to make that feasible… but if you’ve got those, telecommuting makes *SO* much sense for so very many people.

      And, man, wouldn’t you like to make the money you’re making now but living in a place that had a cost of living closer to that found in the Upper Peninsula?

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      • Dear , you are several multiplicative factors off on your assumptions about Bangalore technology workers. We offer highly competitive wages for the area, and our cost of living is excellent, even if rising. There’s really no comparison between the quality of work, only cost… which is why even one of your leading Technology feeder institutions has recently decided to outsource to India. We are very proud of our work here, and would appreciate if you would not inflate our cost structure for the general public. Its bad for business.

        Yours very truly,
        The Bangalore Chamber of Commerce.
        ***
        4 out of the 12 companies I cover have gone beyond outsourcing to Wipro or Cognizant or Tata or whatever, and have built their own technology centers in India and are now hiring and managing directly… it starts with a highly paid Exec liaison and well paid US Tech liaisons… but I’ve now seen those positions eliminated by the early adopters. The “disruption” is just beginning.

        The NPR report about the UCal system is interesting, just plain interesting… we hear the bell tolling in the distance for others, but never for us.

        I get that if I were to just stare at charts, projections and aggregates and extend my timeline far enough that we might see some distant labor parity… one where maybe wages have fallen to their true bottom, or maybe more hopefully one where we’ve priced various labor protections into the cost of labor too.

        But when, out of curiosity I talk to folks playing the arbitrage game and do some back-up research, I despair at the delta… and realize that the lines on the chart don’t tell us the cost of getting from here to there.

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        • In the early tremors of the outsourcing earthquake, I was part of the group of managed services folks that they managed to find excuses to keep finding new and improved jobs for rather than the folks that they didn’t/couldn’t find those excuses for and, as such, I was able to keep in touch with my friends among the Global Conglomerate employees who were now working with Fully Outsourced Support rather than the subs over there in the corner. My friends gave me updates on how the new support worked out.

          I know you know the words, so sing it with me: Downtimes went from a matter of minutes to a matter of days. Tickets that we acknowledged in less than an hour went on to take a day or so to move from “submitted” to “accepted”, let alone have someone write an update in the comments field.

          I asked about what impact this was having on the bottom line and my buddies just up’n shrugged. “Management doesn’t care. They’re saving money.”

          I’d like to think that management eventually saw that the pendulum had swung too far and started doing what they could to make it swing back (well, that and contracts that talked about paying people in Singapore Currency when we had Robust Clinton Dollars were one thing and when we had anemic post-9/11 Bush Dollars quite another).

          I like to think lots of things, though.

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          • Services that are hampered by the 24 hour email turnaround time are a real killer to outsource.

            I had to spend some time with my engineers to train them on what an India friendly email looks like: Make sure you get them all the information they need and ask all of the questions to which you need the answer (number them). If they have to reply to anything with a question, that’s 24 hours you just wasted. If you can figure out how to deal with that pipeline delay, it’s not so bad. But a lot of teams just never figured it out.

            Back in the days when all of our intercontinental comms went by by ship, nobody wrote a letter that just said, “u up?”

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      • It’s a management issue as well.
        In groups composed of persons with technical competence, leadership is often unnecessary management strategy is significantly altered.
        Interestingly, persons tending toward introversion are more effective managers in groups with high technical expertise. To me, this suggests that gregariousness is persuasive, or perceived as charismatic, to a certain mindset.

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    • Actually, this is evidence for journalists not being the sharpest knives in the drawer. Here’s the relevant quote from the paper cited by the article:

      A second possibility is that technological advances have allowed for an expansion of telecommuting and flexible work schedules, reducing the need for workers to move for a job. Indeed, the fraction of workers who report working from home rose from 2.1 percent in the 1980 Census to 4.1 percent in the 2009 American Community Survey. However, this increase seems to be too small to account for the substantial decrease in migration.

      As a rule of thumb, you should take a pop journalist’s summary of an academic paper with a grain of salt.

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  3. I’m not moving because I’m well established where I am and my industry has specific geographic locations, and the one I’m in is the largest. I’m old enough to be considering moving once or twice more-1) for cohabitation and 2) retirement.

    Otherwise, I’m staying where I am.

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  4. The trend that the article neglects was the secular rise in the percentage of women employed in the workforce from 1950 to 2000 (since 2000, the secular trend seems to have ended, in that it now more or less goes along with the overall cyclical employment and economic picture – though with somewhat a delay on both sides of the curve)

    I don’t know if this could possibly cause the decline in migration, but the timing works out. (and better if you couple it with the birth rate demographic trend)

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    • Yeah, the omission of marriage was notable. I would put it this way though: the larger the household and/or the greater the second income, the more difficult/unlikely to move.

      The article also doesn’t think homeownership rates are completely explanatory. Having just had a few Southern Californians enter my life who migrated to this area, it is much easier for a homeowner in a high housing cost area to move to a low housing cost area than vice versa. I would look at homeownership rates and the variance in median home prices. The initial post-war period had a surge in affordable housing that would have made lateral moves all over the country easier.

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    • This, a thousand times. My wife and I are both in roughly the same income bracket. One of us can’t say, “Quit your little hobby job. We’re moving so I can find better work.” We both need to find work such that the overall result isn’t a loss of income.

      The problem is that two people finding a new job with the same/better income at the same time is probably not twice as hard as a single person doing it. It may well be harder, what with probabilities of getting an interview, etc. And if the job market tightens, I have to guess that the joint probability gets worse in kind of a nonlinear way, so it may strongly exacerbate the two income stay-in-place inertia. I know that I certainly wouldn’t leave a two-income location for a new job without a new job for my wife in a tight job market, even if I might roll the dice in a booming economy.

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      • There’s also the fact that, most likely, where you live is where your friends and family are.

        Even if you and your spouse can secure equally good employment, you’re still uprooting and moving away from your real life social networks.

        I notice the people that often move around start early — with college or right after, and either keep moving — or set up roots and don’t wish to move again.

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    • I found a survey that suggests spouses might be the most important factor. This corporate relocation survey found that these are the top reasons given by employees for refusing a job relocation offer:

      Spouse’s/Partner’s Employment: 55%
      No Desire to Relocate: 41%
      Housing/Mortgage Concerns: 32%
      Cost of Living in New Location: 29%
      Job Security Concerns: 15%

      This is only one type of migration, presumably in employment situations in which two income earners are common, but I’m still kind of surprised “no desire to relocate” wouldn’t be number one when it is the employer selecting where to relocate.

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  5. When I moved from graduate school in Texas to Bell Labs in New Jersey in the late 1970s, the Labs paid for the moving company, for storage of my (very modest amount of) stuff while I looked for an apartment, and paid a real estate agent to help me search for said apartment. Every place where I got an offer included at least minimal relocation assistance.

    When I moved from Bellcore in New Jersey to USWest in Denver in the late 1980s, USWest counted it as a transfer and: (a) bought my house in New Jersey from me at the appraised price, (b) arranged for a mortgage pre-approval, (c) paid for my wife to fly to Denver to find and buy a house, (d) paid for the movers, (e) paid the airfare to fly all four us to Denver, and (f) paid for a bunch of expenses while we waited for our stuff to arrive. Granted this was the company’s platinum relocation package, but everyone who came to join the Advanced Technologies piece of the company got some relocation assistance.

    I understand that such practices have pretty much disappeared. My friend who is interviewing around because she wants to get out of Texas says that relocation will be on her dime.

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