In the early 1950s, about 3.5 percent of all American households moved from one state to another in any given year. This proportion held up through the 1970s, and then started to fall around 1980. By 2006 interstate migration had dropped to 2 percent, and by 2010 to just 1.4 percent, or less than half the rate of the early 1950s. The latest available data, for 2011-12, shows interstate migration still stuck at a mere 1.7 percent. Though it may not square with our national self-image, America today is a nation of people who tend to stay put, with a population that is no more mobile than that of Denmark or Finland.This has a little bit to do with the aging population and the increase in two-income couples, but not much; the rates of migration for young people and single people have fallen nearly as much as the overall rate.
One reason long-term unemployment has stayed stubbornly high in the past two recessions is that Americans are increasingly unwilling to relocate to find new jobs:
Nobody has a better reason to pick up and move than someone who can’t find a job—or at least so it would seem. But while unemployed people remain likelier to migrate than employed people, they are much less likely to migrate than in previous decades. In 1956, for example, 7.6 percent of unemployed males moved from one state to another during the previous year. Subsequently that rate fell to 7 percent (1966), 5.9 percent (1976), 5.3 percent (1986), 4.4 percent (1996), 4.3 percent (2006), and, finally, 2.7 percent (2012).When Americans do move, they often move away from wealthy states to states with lower average incomes; Maryland and Connecticut, the two richest states, both have more people leaving than coming in. This seems to have something to do with housing costs; natives are leaving expensive areas like southern California and Washington, DC because they can't find the sort of housing they want at a price they consider affordable. That people are leaving high-income but crowded areas for poorer areas where they can have more room seems to me an important clue to what is going on.
I think all of this represents a broader trend toward different goals in life. Money and career success just don't loom as large in many people's life plans as they did two generations ago. This is partly because we are more comfortable than we were; people who lived in sharecroppers' shacks had a bigger incentive to move to another state than people in decent housing. The safety net is stronger, making unemployment less of a catastrophe; that most middle class families have two potential breadwinners also makes it easier to stay put when one loses a job.
But it seems to me that the decline in mobility indicates a decline in career ambition. Work, as I keep arguing, just matters less to many people than it used to. Instead, people are more focused on happiness, and every study of that ever done says that getting together with friends and family is the most important thing. So why move to another state for a job? You're not going to starve where you are, and you'll be with people you know instead of strangers. Obviously not everyone is like that; millions of people do move every year, and there are still plenty of hyper-ambitious types around. But as a nation we would increasingly rather be poor near home than richer someplace else.