“Increasing mobility has left us uprooted and disconnected from communities in America.” This is a common refrain going back at least 100 years. Think of the song following World War I that asked how are you going to keep them down on the farm once they have seen gay Paree’? The lament of increasing mobility is a compelling narrative except for one minor problem: Mobility has been declining for decades.
Sociologist Claude Fischer writes:
The evidence that mobility has declined is more robust for roughly the past 65 years, thanks to annual census-bureau mass surveys. Around 1950, about 20 per cent of Americans changed homes from one year to the next. In the 1980s, under 18 per cent did. By the 2000s, under 15 per cent – and now we are approaching annual moving rates of only 10 per cent. About two-thirds of movers do not go far, relocating within the same county, and the frequency of such local moves has dropped by about half since the Second World War. The proportion of Americans who move across county and state lines is considerably lower, but that rate, too, has dropped substantially, from about 6.5 per cent in the 1950s to under 4 per cent now.
This trend toward staying in place has accelerated since 2001. … (The Great Settling Down)
Why the decline in mobility?
So what is the cause? My best guess is that the greatest single factor in the great settling down was the increasing physical and economic security of US life.
Thanks to a growing and stabilising economy, spreading affluence, vastly improved public health, the establishment of government institutions from policing to business regulation, and all sorts of ‘safety net’ programmes over several generations – from Social Security to federal disaster assistance – fewer and fewer Americans have been forced to move because of unemployment, floods, the death of a breadwinner, and so on. Greater security also helps account for an apparent shift from the 19th to 20th centuries in who was likeliest to move.
I have done extensive work on tracing my ancestors. I have traced every line back to at least my third great grandparents, most of who were born in the early 1800s. I know more about some than others but the part that has always intrigued me is how much they moved. I would estimate that the majority lived in at least three different states and in more than five counties over their lifetimes. I suspect most people who have identified American ancestors this far back have similar stories. But I have also noticed one anomaly.
My great grandmother, Augusta (Holmes) Kruse was born in Dekalb County, Missouri, in 1870, the year after her parents had moved there from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Her ancestors go back to seven of the Mayflower passengers and include many other people who arrived shortly thereafter. Her family had stayed in place for nearly 250 years. Her maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Pierce, was seaman who owned ships and sailed the world. Her mother had been to finishing school in Boston. Her grandfather Holmes was an accomplished carpenter. These were not exceptionally wealthy people but they clearly had stable comfortable lives. Her parents moved west because of her father’s health. Augusta married my great grandfather, Carl P. Kruse, who had emigrated from a small town in Denmark where his family had lived for generations and where his father had served in the Danish Parliament. Because of the population explosion in Denmark, farmland was scarce, and wanting to farm, Carl came to America.
Most of my other family lines consist primarily of farmers, miners, and laborers. Ancestors in these families seemed to be constantly on the move. This anecdotal analysis of my family history seems consistent with what the author is describing.
Demographers talk of migration in terms of push and pull factors. Push factors are those that make the status quo more unbearable to maintain. Pull factors are those that promise relatively better circumstance than the status quo. It would appear that in past generations, push factors might have played a bigger role; things like war, drought, local economies gone bad, and the like. However, as America has become more prosperous, there have been fewer pushes pushing fewer of us. Migration is more about positive pulls.
The “settling” of America is one more piece of evidence about an improving world in terms of material well-being. But as the author notes, we still have challenges to social cohesion. While improved transportation and communication may not have made us more inclined to move, it may have reshaped who we choose to interact with in our communities. And as the global economy reshapes the work we do, the trauma of regional job loss is possibly made more traumatic because we are less and less accustomed to uprooting and relocating. Focusing on increasing mobility as a cause of rootlessness takes us in an unproductive direction.