WASHINGTON — Americans are staying put more than at any time since World War II, as the housing bust and unemployment keep young adults at home and thwart older Americans' plans for a beachfront or lakeside retirement.
New information from the Census Bureau is the latest indicator of economic trouble, after earlier signs that mobility was back on the upswing. It's also a shift from America's long-standing cultural image of ever-changing frontiers, dating to the westward migration of the 1800s and more recently in the spreading out of whites, blacks and Hispanics in the Sun Belt's housing boom.
Rather than housing magnets such as Arizona, Florida and Nevada, it is now more traditional, densely populated states — California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey — that are showing some of the biggest population gains in the recent economic slump, according to the data released Thursday. [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]
Residents have been largely locked in place; families are stuck in devalued homes and young adults are living with parents or staying put in the towns where they went to college.
"The fact that mobility is crashing is something that I think is quite devastating," said Richard Florida, an urban theorist and professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. He described America's residential movement as a key element of its economic resilience and history, from development of the nation's farmland in the Midwest to its coastal ports and homesteading in the West.
"The latest decline shows we are in a long-run economic reset and that we never really recovered — we've just been stagnating along," Florida said.
Roughly 11.6 percent of the nation's population, or 35.1 million, moved to a new home in the past year, down from 12.5 percent in the previous year. The current level of low mobility comes after the recession technically ended in mid-2009, beating a previous low of 11.9 percent in 2008.
It is the lowest in the 60-plus years that the Census Bureau has tracked information on moves, dating back to 1948.
The shares of people moving have been declining for decades, due in part to increases in two-income families that are more tied down by jobs and to an aging population that is less mobile. The peak for U.S. mobility came in 1951, when it hit 21.2 percent. The rate had leveled off at around 13 percent before falling off notably in 2008 during the recession.
Among young adults 25 to 29 — the most mobile age group — moves fell to 24.1 percent from 25.9 percent in the previous year. Longer-distance moves, typically for those seeking new careers in other regions of the country, remained largely flat at 3.4 percent. The biggest drop-off occurred in local moves, down to 15.4 percent from 17.7 percent in 2010, a sign that young adults in the prolonged slump weren't even willing to venture outside their counties, continuing instead to live with relatives or on college campuses. [See the top 10 cities to find a job.]
Americans most often cite a desire to live in a new home as the main reason for moving, as well as reasons of family or economy such as marriage or a new job. But analysts say with many young adults delaying marriage while struggling to find employment and aging baby boomers expressing financial worries about retirement, the current mobility freeze could continue for several more years.
An Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll this month found that more than half of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 say they are unlikely to move someplace new in retirement; about 4 in 10 say they are very likely to stay in their current home throughout all of their retirement.
The annual growth of retirement-destination counties — typically in Sun Belt states such as Florida, Arizona and New Mexico — has fallen sharply since the recession that began in late 2007. It's down nearly half compared with the period 2000-2007, according to recent census data.
In all, the mid-decade housing boom and subsequent bust took a toll on virtually all age and race groups. Homeownership declined in 47 states and the District of Columbia while the national ownership rate fell by its largest amount since the 1930s. Hispanics who moved and purchased homes in new destinations in the Southeast were hit especially hard, sustaining bigger drops in average income and increases in poverty after low-wage construction jobs dried up in states such as South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee.