Millennials are so “stuck-in-place” that American migration has hit a record low

Millennials migration moving
Millennials are facing ‘stuck-in-place’ issues that prevent them from moving. monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images
  • Migration rates hit a record low during the pandemic, per Brookings, largely because of millennials.
  • They’re “stuck in place,” largely because of underemployment and expensive housing.
  • It’s part of the new normal millennials have created, in which milestones happen later or not at all.

The story of the mass migration brought on by the pandemic has proved to be more myth than reality.

It actually did the reverse, freezing more Americans in place than any time since at least World War II.

A new Brookings analysis of Census Bureau data released last month revealed that migration rates hit a record low during the pandemic. Between March 2020 and March 2021, 8.4% of Americans moved, the smallest share since the census started collecting the information in 1947.

This doesn’t contradict other data over the past year on permanent or temporary moves, Brookings demographer William H. Frey wrote; instead it indicates that mobility dropped broadly among Americans. One can look no further than millennials to see why. 

The generation has faced two recessions before the age of 40, all while juggling soaring living costs and the burden of student-loan debt. This affordability crisis has limited their mobility, Frey said.

As he explains, the period between ages 25 to 34 is a “launching age for household formation, marriage, and careers.” But millennials have been shouldering the fallout of the Great Recession, having graduated into a broken job market and an equally broken housing market. Frey described these as “‘stuck-in-place’ issues” that prompted millennials to postpone life milestones, with migration rates also stagnating.

In 2019, local migration for 25- to 34-year-olds fell to 10% from its pre-2010 rate of 14% to 15%. In 2020, it dropped further, to 9.4%. It’s a similar story for long-distance migration, which fell from its typical rate of 8% or higher to between 6% and 7% after 2006. Today, it stands at 5.8%.

It makes sense, considering how unaffordable housing has become. Home prices have been going up for years, at a steeper rate than they did ahead of the Great Recession. By 2018, first-time buyers were paying 39% more than first-time buyers did at the same age nearly 40 years ago. The pandemic housing crisis only exacerbated the situation, with the national median home sale continuously climbing upward before reaching a record high of $US386,888 ($AU539,881) in June.

Being boxed out of homeownership leaves many millennials as renters, but Census data reveals annual migration rates for renters plummeted, getting cut in half from 30.2% in 2006 to 16.6% in 2020 and 2021. That’s indicative of just how expensive the rental market has become, per Brookings.

The lack of mobility is a side effect of the new normal that millennials have created, in which big life events like homeownership and having kids can and do still happen for them, just later than they did for previous generations. Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the period between adolescence and adulthood, previously told Insider that millennials’ financial circumstances have created a new sequence for major life milestones.

“They’re not behind,” he said of millennials. “This is the new normal, and we can’t measure them according to the yardstick of the 1960s.” 

He’s been studying emerging adults since the early 1990s, when they were already being referred to as “behind,” he said, because they had begun staying in educational institutions longer and getting their first jobs later. “The norms that have changed are changing still,” he said. “Now, what’s normal is for people to stay in education or training until at least their early 20s and not in a marriage or parenthood until around age 30.”

This change in societal expectations means that lower mobility rates could be the new norm. But Frey says migration patterns, largely dependent on both millennials and Gen Z, could go either way: We could see “catch-up moves” in the future, or hybrid work may reduce the need to relocate. It all depends on the possibilities presented to these generations, and how much they remain stuck in place.