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COVID-19 won't bring back the mobile American

The wanderlust long associated with American culture is

The wanderlust long associated with American culture is gone. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/PCH-Vector

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Americans, once known for their propensity to move from state to state, have largely grown averse to such change. It may be true that the pandemic has brought a temporary reversal. When new official statistics are released in November, they may show a significant uptick in the share of people who moved in 2020. But any such increase will probably turn out to be an anomaly. After COVID-19, ongoing declines in geographic mobility will return.

In the 1950s and '60s, about 20% of Americans moved each year. Over the past couple decades, however, that share has fallen steadily. In 2018-19, it dropped below 10% for the first time since 1947, when the data begin. The reasons for this, explored in an article by my colleague Richard Florida and also an earlier one by me, have to do with an aging population, people's growing emotional attachment to their homes, and a decline in the number of people changing jobs.

This year is different. Some 22% of American adults either moved, had someone new move into their residence, or know someone who moved because of the pandemic, a Pew Research Center survey suggests. Those who have moved tend to be young; 18-29-year-olds are more than four times as likely to move as people aged 45 to 64. Much of the movement appears to have been away from urban centers and into suburbs, and this is consistent with real estate trends showing substantial new demand for housing outside cities.

The government statistics on mobility for 2020 may well confirm an overall increase in the share of Americans who moved. Or maybe not: The share of people in the Pew survey who actually moved, as opposed to having someone move in with them or knowing someone else who moved, was only 3%. And people who moved for reasons not related to the pandemic probably plummeted this year. The survey released in November, furthermore, is based on a survey from March, so it may not capture the full impact of COVID-related moves.

But assuming a temporary increase in mobility, what will happen going forward? Remote work may come to influence people's decisions about where to live. As Nick Bloom of Stanford University has emphasized, the pandemic has lessened the stigma associated with working from home. A survey conducted in May by the Atlanta Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago, furthermore, suggests that companies expect to see the share of their employees who work remotely full-time to rise to 10% after the pandemic, from 3% in 2019. In theory that could have two contradictory effects on geographic mobility: Since people can work from anywhere, fewer would move for a new job. On the other hand, existing employees may decide to move somewhere farther from the office.

I doubt that remote work will have a very large effect on geographic mobility, however. Bloom underscores that most workers want a mix of in-person and work from home, and the evidence also suggests that such a mix is what optimizes productivity. Even the employer survey suggests that 90% of workers would continue going into the office at least some of the time. So it's unlikely that remote work will substantially change the calculus on moving one way or the other for the vast majority of workers: People will still need to live close enough to the office to be able to go in a few days a week. (If the office itself moves, that could drive additional mobility, but to date most firms don't seem likely to undertake major physical moves in response to the pandemic.)

That leaves us with the preexisting trend. Americans are simply moving less. The problem with this is that it reflects and reinforces a more sclerotic labor market, which impedes economic convergence across various parts of the country and thus contributes to the polarization that has infected our political system.

The pandemic may temporarily disguise it, but the wanderlust long associated with American culture is gone.

Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the chief executive officer of financial advisory at Lazard. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.

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