Do People Really Move for Better Cities?

An attempt to verify/confirm one of the most-used stats in placemaking

By Matt Carmichael on January 7, 2015 at 6:30 am CST

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I started off the year reading Carol Coletta’s great guest post on City Observatory . It’s a good way to kick things off by thinking about the role of placemaking and livability in our cities – not just from a general “it’s good to live in good places” standpoint, but from a standpoint of economic competitiveness.

She makes a lot of great points about how Millennials are choosing a more urban lifestyle and how cities need to be aware of that, and cater to the changing preferences of a changing demographic. Then she says:

“We should start by acknowledging this key fact: 64 percent of the most mobile people in our society – college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds – say, first, they choose the city they want to live in, then they look for a job.”

It’s a stat you see a lot, and it’s useful for making the case for place, but you rarely see where that number comes from.

I first started down this rabbit hole after coming across the figure a couple months ago in a seminal article called Back to the City that appeared in the Harvard Business Review . Many people who have cited the stat have cited that it came from this piece. The author lists the “last U.S. Census” as the source. She lays it out this way: “Almost 64% of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds said they looked for a job only after they’d chosen the city where they wanted to live.”

The article was written in 2010, but well before the data from the 2010 Census was released so “the last Census” reference is somewhat ambiguous. Further, the decennial Census and even the American Community Survey don’t talk about reasons for moving.

To find information on why people move, you have to go to another product of the Census Bureau, The Current Population Survey. I tried to find a question that would draw the conclusion that people choose a city and then look for a job there. There really isn’t such a question. I reached out to a friend at the Census Bureau who pulled some numbers from the 2009 CPS (the most recent available by the time the article was written). He came up with 2.9 million movers who were college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds. Of those, 517,000 moved for a new job or transfer. That’s the most popular move option but still well short of two-thirds. Further, just 86,000 moved “to look for work or lost job,” which would seem to be a question closer to the “choose first, then move” intent.

So none of the Census numbers seemed to back up this stat.

After reading Coletta’s piece, I thought I’d give the search one more try, and this time came up with the actual source. Sort of. It wasn’t the Census, as the Harvard Business Report had suggested. It was a survey from CEOs for Cities (back when Coletta was leading that organization).

The source turns out to be a survey of 1,000 college-educated Millennials who have moved twice since graduation and would consider living in a city. Already kind of a skewed audience, but still an important one. These are talented workers at a very mobile time in their lives.

The actual wording of the question is “Thinking about how you will look for and choose your next job, which of the following statements best reflects your opinion:

Look for a job in a place that I would like to live.

Look for the best job I can find. The place where it is located is pretty much a secondary consideration.

And the response is 64 percent to 36 percent that place matters.

I’ve always argued that survey data is less useful than any sort of data that isn’t survey-based. Intentions and actions are not always the same thing. Impressions also factor in. I once wrote about a survey that says that a majority of men claimed to be mostly responsible for the grocery shopping in their households for the first time. But digging into the data further, it turns out in the survey an even greater majority of women say they were responsible for the grocery shopping in those same households .

What should you make of all of this data geekery? I think the overall impression that place matters is an important one. As we design our cities and programs, we need to take that into account. I think it’s also critical to note that while college-educated 20-somethings are an important segment of the population, they are just one segment of the population. I think the question is worded in such a way that it could easily lead the respondent to the “place matters” response, and that this stat should be giving a little less prominence as we continue to make the case for place. Finally, it’s worth noting this survey is pre-recession data. The recession changed just about everything, so it’s probably time for more study on this question.

Mostly, it’s important to balance what people say with what they actually do. In this case, while a majority of people tell one survey they would consider place in their job-seeking move, only about 500,000 such people move in a given year. That’s not a ton. In a five-year period, 40 percent or so in this age group don’t move at all. Nearly 60 perecnt of those who do move stay within the same county. An additional 20 percent of the movers wind up in a different county in the same state. That leaves only 22 percent of movers crossing state lines.

Still not a huge cohort of people, but …

There is a lot of competition for those people, and they’re an important part of the economy of today and tomorrow. However much credence you put in the numbers and what people tell survey takers, the case for place is still strong. We’ll be talking about that a lot more as 2015 rolls out. What are your favorite stats on the subject?

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

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