Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A recent study by William Frey at the Brookings Institution shows that young Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have remained stuck in place in the aftermath of the recession. Their geographical mobility rate is extraordinarily low: by one estimate, only 20.1 percent of millennials moved in the past year.

And that figure includes local moves: down the street and across town. When you look at “long-distance moves” -– between counties or states -– it is only 7 percent, close to a historical low. "Millennials are mired down,” Frey said. They’re “very cautious about buying a home or moving to new areas.”

That’s an understatement. If history is any guide, they’re more than cautious. They’re downright paralyzed.

From its earliest years, the U.S. was known for the geographical mobility of its population. European visitors gaped at the streams of migrants headed west, stunned at the willingness of Americans to take off on foot, horseback and canal boat.

“A man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on," reported Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited in the 1830s. "He brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves.”

Like many breathless reports of America in the 19th century, Tocqueville's account was little more than an impression. It wasn’t until the 20th century that historical statisticians began to compile data that helped flesh out claims of Americans were in perpetual motion.

Researchers have confirmed that Americans were fairly peripatetic throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

For example, studies of rural counties in Iowa and Wisconsin found that between 70 percent and 75 percent of the adult working population vanished in the 10-year intervals from 1860 to 1870 and from 1870 to 1880.

Other historians reached comparable conclusions for small-sized cities. In Rochester, between 1849 and 1859, 80 percent of the original residents had picked up sticks and left.

Some died, of course. But the most rigorous studies of internal migration in the U.S. confirmed that, even when excluding mortality, Americans still moved at exceptionally high rates. In the 1970s, researchers Stephan Thernstrom and Peter Knights combined city directories (a primitive precursor to the phone book) with Census statistics to assess mobility rates.

The results were astonishing. In Boston, in the 1870s and 1880s, Thernstrom and Knights found that half the residents tended to move, on average, every year. (At the time the study was published, the average annual relocation rate in the U.S. topped out at around 20 percent.)

Moreover, in many cases, people didn’t just move down the block. They left the city. Between 1830 and 1890, Boston's population grew to 448,000 from 61,000, an increase of 363,000. But in that same period, more than 3.3 million people entered the city. These numbers make sense only if huge numbers of people were simultaneously entering and leaving.
Indeed, when Thernstrom and Knights delved deeper, they found that a third of the movers left the state. This discovery, the researchers speculated, indicated that “migratory patterns in the mid-nineteenth century were fundamentally different from those later, that once people then had pulled up stakes at all…they were also more likely to travel long distances to their new destinations.”

Boston was one of the more conservative, stable cities of the 19th century; urban centers such as New York and Chicago probably had higher rates of turnover.

Moreover, the rates established by Thernstrom and Knights tended to be aggregates. When researchers examined particularly mobile subgroups -– immigrants, unskilled laborers and younger men -– they found even higher levels. For example, a study that looked at Chelsea, Massachusetts, found that in 1915, a whopping 44 percent of the unskilled laborers had been there for less than a year.

In the 19th century, many people worried that once Americans settled the continent -– once the frontier “closed,” to use the formulation of historian Frederick Jackson Turner -- mobility would cease. That didn’t happen: people continued to move around the country at very high rates, most famously when blacks left the South en masse for the cities of the North during the “Great Migration.”

Residential mobility did begin to decline, particularly after 1945. There are many explanations for this shift: the growing emphasis on education, rather than geographic mobility, as the path to success; and, at least in the mid-20th century, a decline in immigration, a class of people more likely to move than native-born citizens.

There is also the argument, advanced by several historians, that the sharp drop-off in residential mobility after 1945 was the product of New Deal housing reforms, which introduced long-term mortgages and increased the number of homeowners tethered to one place.

All true, no doubt. But why are millennials, who are less likely to own a home, so thoroughly stuck in place? A whopping 36 percent are now living with their parents.

If an earlier generation of Americans blessed with fewer resources and advantages could pull up roots and move to new towns and cities, sight unseen, it seems strange that millennials can’t do the same. There are, after all, areas where jobs are reasonably plentiful, at least for certain classes of workers. South Dakota or Texas may not be on every millennial’s list of desirable destinations, but that wouldn’t have stopped their historical peers from hitting the road.

Could the problem be student debt? Helicopter parents? In any case, millennials should heed Horace Greeley’s alleged advice to the younger generation a century and a half ago. “Go West, young man [or woman!] go West and grow up with the country.”

And, he should have added, “leave your parents’ basement.”

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Mihm at mihmstep@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.