Americans no longer want to move for work. Here's why.
After two years of grousing that no one wants to work anymore, America's employers might have a new line of complaint: No one wants to move.
After steadily falling for decades, the rate of Americans moving for work fell to a record low of just 1.6% in the first three months of the year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
"This is the lowest quarterly result that we've seen, among all the job seekers we've worked with, since 1986," the company's senior vice president, Andrew Challenger, told CBS MoneyWatch.
Challenger is an outplacement firm, meaning it's hired by companies that are conducting mass layoffs to help those workers find new employment. In the 1980s and '90s, a third of the workers surveyed by Challenger said they regularly moved to take a new job, but that figure has been dropping for years.
The trend is evidence of a decline in the dynamism of the U.S. economy, experts say, while also undercutting the historic narrative of Americans as a population of pioneers and risk-takers boldly venturing into new terrain in pursuit of opportunity.
A confluence of factors Americans' declining willingness to relocate for work, according to economists. First, despite businesses' push to bring employees back to the office, remote jobs are still plentiful for white-collar workers — that gives them options if they decide to seek new position.
The pandemic-fueled run up in home prices, coupled with the surge in mortgage rates over the past year, also has made it much more difficult to move as housing costs have shot up much faster than incomes.
"We're at a unique moment, particularly when we still have availability of a lot of remote jobs and that coincides with a particularly difficult moment for moving in the real-estate market," Challenger said.
The anchor of high housing costs
Skyrocketing housing prices are a major roadblock to mobility. Nationwide, home prices have soared nearly 25% over the last two years, coupled with mortgage rates that have more than doubled since the start of 2022. The typical monthly mortgage payment for a single-family home now takes up half of a purchaser's monthly disposable income, up from about 30% pre-pandemic, according to research from Pantheon Macroeconomics.
Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 4 existing mortgages today have a rate under 3%, the research firm said. That's contributing to many homeowners feeling "locked in" to their current home, loath to trade it for a new place shackled to a much higher mortgage rate.
"[M]ost existing homeowners are not going to move unless they absolutely have to, due to death, divorce, or an—irresistible—job offer," Pantheon said in a report.
During the pandemic, many Americans' decision to leave crowded cities, along with the rapid rise of "Zoom towns," exacerbated the housing shortage. The high-paid technology sector, one of the fastest-growing industries during the pandemic before this year's layoffs, drove plenty of the increase in boom towns like Austin and Nashville, to the detriment of lower-paid service or manufacturing workers.
"Even the 'affordable' markets, outside New York, D.C. or California are less affordable to someone who's below the median income in the U.S.," said Kenan Fikri, research director of the Economic Innovation Group, a nonprofit that studies entrepreneurship and economic mobility.
"Phoenix, Arizona, for a long time was thought of as a new economy of opportunity, or the research triangle of North Carolina," he said. "But now they're prohibitively expensive for someone with a median income, or less, to move to."
Despite a brief uptick during the first years of the pandemic, Americans' rate of moving for any reason has fallen for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, one-fifth of Americans moved every year; in 2021, that rate was just 8%, according to the Census Bureau.
Americans, "instead of voting with their feet, they're propping them up on the couch and staying where they are," quipped EIG's Fikri.
High housing costs are a recent addition to the pile of lifestyle changes that have made Americans more stuck in place since last century. A major long-term factor is the rise of two-earner households. "Families don't want to uproot both careers, [so] there's two things keeping them in one place instead of one," Fikri said.
Changing employers, not location
At the same time, while more people are working, fewer are seeing the kind of employer loyalty extolled in the mid-20th-century version of American capitalism.
University of North Carolina sociologist Arne Kalleberg believes the decrease in the length of average employment is a factor in some people's unwillingness to relocate. In the 1960s and '70s, he noted, it was more common for people to move at their employer's request.
"In order to move up in the company, you had to move around in different divisions," he said. Today, that's less necessary because of the advent of remote work, giant employers with multiple corporate locations and even the relatively flatter structure of organizations.
"Advancement with a company is less of a possibility these days… there's not as many levels to move to," he added.
Now, to advance their careers, employees are more likely to leave their employer for another one in the same city rather than relocate elsewhere.
There's an upside
Still, there are some positives to the fact that Americans are staying put more often. It allows people to put down roots in their communities and potentially lets families stay together, rather than bow to the pressure of economic need. It also means the economic differences between regions in the U.S. are far less stark today than a few decades ago.
"A lot of the jobs that are done in Des Moines now are not as different as the jobs done in Dallas," Fikri said.
That means the nation's economic growth this decade will be more equal than it was in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when a few big cities boomed while most of America stagnated.
"The recovery from the Great Recession was extremely imbalanced — the huge benefits went to a handful of areas that were Hoovering up graduates and knowledge workers. We seem to be now entering a phase of much more balanced economic growth," Fikri said.
"If we have a broader geography of where Americans want to live, that may mean we have a more balanced national economic map," he continued. "The economy may not grow as much in aggregate, but it may be more balanced, more stable economically, and more places may be able to retain modest levels of growth — because they're not suffering from the magnitude of brain drain they otherwise would."
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