U.S. labor mobility has declined steadily since the 1980s. This decline spans demographic categories of age, income, and education levels.1 This recent migration trend counters America’s historical experience of “restless mobility,” when individuals readily moved in search of opportunity and advancement. Numerous explanations have been given for this drop in mobility, including the growing number of two-income households, consolidation of earnings/occupational opportunities across geographic areas, and technological advances that make migration unnecessary.2 In their 2019 working paper, “Fast Locations and Slowing Labor Mobility,” Patrick Coate of the National Council on Compensation Insurance and the Philadelphia Fed’s Kyle Mangum examine another explanation: home attachment. In doing so, they provide useful information for policymakers who wish to understand potential rigidities in U.S. labor markets and the effect on productivity.3

Coate and Mangum begin their study with a descriptive analysis of historical U.S. migration behavior and population trends. Beginning in the early 1900s, new cities sprouted across southern and western states. These cities' new residents were migrants from agricultural and industrial areas of the Midwest and Northeast. However, not all the new residents stayed put. The authors call these new cities “fast locations” because of their rapid migration inflows and outflows, which together created strong gross migration flows.

Between 1880 and 2010, we see population growth rates in local labor markets experiencing fast (and also medium and slow) mobility. Populations grew rapidly in fast locations such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, transforming them from small towns into major urban agglomerations in the first half of the 20th century.

The West and to a lesser extent the Frontier (comprising the Rocky Mountains, Central Plains, and Southwest) grew significantly faster than the national average for much of the 1900s. Beginning in the mid-1900s, the South, including Florida, also became an important population destination. The expansion into these hotter and more humid climates was facilitated by new air conditioning technology.

In recent decades, as land across the U.S. filled with development—particularly along the coasts—highly mobile cities became increasingly populated by people born there. As an example, in 1960, 20 percent of U.S.-born residents of Los Angeles were from California, while by 2010, 70 percent were. At the same time, population growth rates have converged and are now similar across all regions. Coate and Mangum theorize that these two trends are connected by home attachment, or “rootedness”—that is, people prefer to live near family and social connections.4 Despite individual differences in the intensity of home attachment, the authors find a preference for home among the young and the old, and for both college- and noncollege-educated workers.

At the metropolitan level, native residents are significantly less likely to move than are residents who have moved from other places. So if two coworkers, one native and one a migrant, both lose their job, the migrant is far more likely to move again than is the native. The home attachment of an increasingly locally born population, the authors suggest, explains much of why growth rates have converged.

To test their home attachment theory, the authors use a dynamic model of location choice.5 In their model, individuals differ in terms of birth location, residence, age, education, and income. They face costs—financial, informational, and emotional—from moving long distances. The authors use the observed migration patterns to derive the preference for home relative to income opportunities and amenities (such as favorable climate) in destination locations. The authors also simulate labor mobility under the evolving state of home attachment that came about as a result of the rapid population changes in the mid-1900s.

They find that home attachment accounts for about two-thirds of the recent decline in migration. Furthermore, people who lived away from home were significantly more likely to return home, showing that home occupies a special status even in the preference of movers. This home preference, which is similarly strong among many demographic groups, contributed strongly to the recent changes in mobility rates across all ages and skill levels. The aging population also helps explain declining migration in their model, but to a much lesser extent and in a similar way across all places (not just in fast locations).

Home attachment fits the spatial pattern: The authors find that cities that formerly had high rates of turnover and population growth drove the recent slowdown in labor mobility. As the number of migrants to these fast locations tapered off in the 1970s and 1980s, more people became native to these newly developed regions. This increasingly native population was less inclined to migrate. In contrast, less mobile cities and cities with slow or stagnant population growth (including in distressed labor markets in the Lake Erie and Ohio River regions and in Appalachia) had little or no impact on the recent downward trend in U.S. migration—a development not widely understood until now.

In summary, Coate and Mangum demonstrate how historical population growth trends affected the degree of regional nativity. As successive generations grew up in the newly populated areas, migration declined. This is useful information for policymakers who seek to understand whether migration trends are largely the result of economic or logistical barriers to people moving or of people choosing not to move for personal reasons. Coate and Mangum find that most of the migration decline is the result of people deciding not to move because they like their homes, which, they argue, suggests much more positive welfare implications for the decline in mobility.

1 Sabrina Tavernise, “Frozen in Place: Americans Are Moving at the Lowest Rate on Record,” The New York Times, November 21, 2019.

2 For more on these explanations, see T.J. Cooke, “Internal Migration in Decline,” The Professional Geographer, 65:4 (2013), pp. 664–675, and G. Kaplan and S. Schulhofer-Wohl, “Understanding the Long-Run Decline in Interstate Migration,” International Economic Review, 58:1 (2017), pp. 57–94.

3 The views expressed in the paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia or the Federal Reserve System.

4 A related study reported that one-half of adults born in the U.S. live within 50 miles of their place of birth. (See M. Zabek, “Local Ties in Spatial Equilibrium,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, November 7, 2019.)

5 The authors used cross-sectional data on location of birth, residence, and final location choice from as far back as the late 1800s. Data came primarily from the U.S. Census Bureau (1880–2010), the American Community Survey (2005–2017), and the U.S. Treasury's Internal Revenue Service (1991–2016).