The number of people in the US who relocated for a new job last year declined to 3.5 million from 3.8 million in 2015, the Wall Street Journal‘s Rachel Feintzeig and Lauren Weber reported on Sunday, citing census data. Even as the US population has grown, the number of relocations has been on a downward trend overall since the government began tracking this data in 1999. A new analysis from Challenger, Gray & Christmas looks back even further and concludes that the percentage of job seekers willing to move for new jobs has fallen dramatically since the late 1980s: Between 1986 (when Challenger began collecting data) and 1990, the average annual relocation rate was 35.2 percent, compared to just 11.3 percent on average between 2007 and 2017.
Various factors can discourage candidates from taking jobs that require them to move, experts tell Feintzeig and Weber at the Journal. One major variable is housing costs: If candidates can’t afford to live in the high-cost cities where jobs are abundant, they won’t take those jobs. The high rents and other costs of living in powerhouse cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles can make it difficult for Americans from less expensive parts of the country to move there, even for comparatively lucrative work. When real estate values are low, on the other hand, candidates may be reluctant to move if they own a home they can’t sell; this is why, when General Electric moved its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut to downtown Boston in 2016, the company offered to buy relocating employees’ houses if they were unable to sell them.
Beyond housing considerations, workers may be unwilling to move because they don’t want to disrupt the lives of their spouses or children. Dual-income families may hesitate to relocate when one partner gets a job offer in another city, if that means the other partner will have to quit a good job in their current location. Such a move often means temporarily losing household income earned by the second partner and might also depress their future earnings.
Children are also factoring more into these decisions for working families, as parents are more reluctant to disrupt their children’s routines, social lives, and educations. Divorced parents are also less likely to move today than they were in past decades, University of Connecticut sociologist Thomas Cooke tells the Journal, because they are more likely to have shared-custody arrangements that are harder to manage if the parents live far apart. The high cost of child care are also a likely consideration, especially for the significant number of US families who rely on grandparents or other relatives for child care. Many mid-career workers today also have aging parents to take care of and may be unable to move because of those caregiving obligations.
Broader economic conditions have also come to bear on these relocation patterns, including labor market dynamics, what kind of relocation packages employers are offering, and the advent of remote work, Challenger, Gray & Christmas Vice President Andrew Challenger points out in the outplacement firm’s press release:
“The dot-com bubble that left companies flush with cash in the second half of the 1990s, allowing them the potential to offer generous relocation packages to attract talent, burst in 2000. That burst led to an increase in job cuts nationwide, and this period seems to delineate the end of the relocation trend. As companies found themselves in cost-cutting mode, it seems many chose to find local candidates and spare the expense of relocation reimbursement in the years following,” said [Challenger]. …
“There is a lot of risk involved in picking up your life and moving to another area. Especially now, in such a tight labor market where jobs are plentiful, job seekers don’t have to leave the security of their homes to find new employment,” said Challenger. “Meanwhile, technology has made it so that workers can work from virtually anywhere. Even workers who are offered relocation packages may forego the hassle if they and their employers agree their jobs can be done remotely.”