The Only Relocation Trend That Changes

March 11, 2014 at 5:50 am CDT

Only one relocation trend ever seems to change. It’s the urban/suburban movers. Sometimes they move in, sometimes they move out. In which decade were each of the following statements written? Can you guess? These are all quotes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s reports on where people are moving.

“It is conceivable that although in the past the movement from rural area to central city to suburbs may have been the modal cycle, it is no longer so.”

“Most movers from the suburbs are not moving further out but seem to be moving back to the central cities.”

“One of the most common patterns in residential mobility and population redistribution in this century has been the suburbanization of America.”

“The metropolitan areas inside central cities had totally different migration patterns than outside central cities. Most movers maintained their metropolitan status, but more chose outside central cities than inside as their destination.”

To make life easy for you, and for myself, I put those quotes in chronological order beginning with analysis of data from the mid-1960s ; the mid-to-late 1970s ; the mid-to-late 1980s ; and finally from the late 1990s .

In writing about trends, it’s often helpful to take a step back and look not only at recent data, but historical. Thankfully, the Census has been tracking migration patterns of humans since the 1940s. In terms of the great urban/suburban debate and divide, it’s illuminating to see that the narrative of today (“everyone is moving back downtown”) is not a unique narrative in history. Neither is it one that has been building for decades – like the increase in single-person households, for instance. No, it’s a newish phenomenon and one that parallels the data reported in the 1970s. And it’s not an entirely accurate narrative either. About two people move from a core city to the suburbs for every one who moves from the suburbs back into the city. That’s not to say that the increase in population in downtowns hasn’t been transformative. Clearly it has – especially in our largest cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.

But the suburbs aren’t exactly emptying at the same time, which is why it’s still so important to rethink/rebuild them.

All that said, pretty much all other mobility trends have stayed rather constant in the last 70 years. People don’t tend to move too often. There has been some ebb and flow, but in a typical year about 18 percent of people move. When they move, they don’t tend to move too far – most stay within the same county. They tend to move most frequently in their 20s – when life stage changes dictate new housing arrangements. Renters tend to move more than owners. And people move more often when their kids are young than when their kids are older and likely entrenched in schools.

In theory, we are supposed to be an increasingly mobile society. Technology, a decline in the rate of ownership (for homes, autos and other ‘stuff’), coupled with the decentralization of many key industries like manufacturing should mean that we’re not tied to any one place in the same way we used to be. Think back to the agrarian roots of our nation. It wasn’t easy to pick up your farm and trek across the nation – although people certainly did when pressed.

In reality, that’s just not proving to be the case. Sure, we’re able to do more when we’re on the go, but the place we come back to tends to stay the same. Home might now be where we charge our iPad rather than hang our hat, but we charge it in the same place, year after year.

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