Michael A. MacDowell: Is Mobility Dead In America?

By Michael A. MacDowell

Americans are moving less. Census data show that about 4.8 million of us moved across state lines in 2013 – down from 5.7 million in 2006 and 7.5 million in 2007.

Since the post WWII era, Americans have moved more than citizens of most other developed countries. The movement was stimulated by a growing economy and buttressed by developing industries in aerospace, technology and recently by biotechnology.

Michael A. MacDowell

Demographers suggest that this slowdown in Americans' willingness or ability to move may represent a "tectonic shift in our economy and labor market." A recent article by Annie Lowrey, an economics reporter for the New York Times, suggests the geographic lathery of the American work force has impacted a huge swath of workers across all industries.

Economists are divided on what has caused this sedimentary sentiment. It could be caused by a more homogenous work force. Today, employers find the skills they need locally rather than having to conduct national searches to find who they need. The growth in dual-income families may also add to peoples' reluctance to uproot themselves for higher paying or more promising jobs for one spouse at the expense of another. Others have suggested that the growth in the Internet has made physical proximity to one's employer less important. The Internet and accompanying virtual links to co-workers in far-off offices make the possibility of staying put feasible.

And of course the Great Recession has inhibited labor mobility. Those currently employed are less likely to uproot themselves and their families for a new position in a tenuous labor market. Another factor complicating moving is the recession's effect on housing. People naturally are reluctant to move when the house they purchased several years ago now is worth less than the original purchase price.

All of these explanations, however, may mask an underlying tendency in today's economy. Are people taking as many risks as they once did? During the long period of economic growth that ensued after WWII and progressed with relatively few interruptions until 2008, Americans were generally more aggressive in pursuing new employment opportunities. They moved in large numbers, first to the west and then to the southeast.

Economic growth requires a variety of factors, not the least of which is a flexible and well-educated work force that is willing to take on new challenges. Attracting and maintaining such a work force not only facilitates initial growth of a company or organization, but it also provides the fodder for entrepreneurship. New employees bring innovations to the production process and enable firms to create new products and product lines. In short, America's propensity to move less has left many economists unsettled.

Logical explanations, such as the growth of the Internet, the homogeneity of the local labor force, and dual-income families, for example, explain some of America's geographic lethargy. A more nimble labor force, however, would provide employers a greater choice and employees more opportunity for themselves. It also enhances the overall productivity of a region and inevitably the country.

In order to keep an economy strong, Pennsylvania must continue to provide both the economic incentives and a business environment that is conducive to attracting new people to the state. The Keystone State has not been in the forefront of attracting an expanding labor force. Sometimes policies, such as aggressive business taxes, retard industries' willingness to hire and, thereby, inhibit the influx of new workers who can build the future of the Commonwealth.

In looking at the future of Pennsylvania, the creation of incentives to attract and not hinder business growth should be foremost in our minds. Moving new, productive employees into our state will spell success for years to come.

Michael A. MacDowell, a resident of Harveys Lake, Pa., is the past president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., and is also the managing director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation. 

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