Americans stay put more now than they used to.

The data is piling up. For residential developers, home builders, and, maybe most significantly, for remodelers, it's time to step back, reflect on what that means, and adjust business strategies, operational models, designs, home and community systems to address that people, more and more, stay where they are.

Migration rates are on a long-term downward trend. Here's nationally recognized demographer William Frey, one of whose special areas of focus is mobility and migration, on the data:

Annual movement within the U.S. is stuck at a postwar low rate of 11 percent. This 2016-2017 rate is not statistically different than the 11.2 percent rate of 2015-2016, the lowest mobility rate in any year since this annual series began in 1947-48 (see Figure 1). The decline in annual mobility rates, from over 20 percent during some years in the 1950s and 1960s down to almost half that today, is the result of long term trends, such as the aging of the population (older people move less than younger people) and rises in homeownership (owners move less than renters). Yet the downward mobility trend of the last decade can certainly be tied to the lasting effects of the Great Recession and housing bust which occurred over the 2007-2009 period.

Dr. Frey attributes much of the latest leg in the long line of decline to hangover effects of the Great Recession, and that's certainly a highly likely contributing factor. There may be something more fundamental going on, however; something structural rather than the cyclical after-effects of a bad downturn.

Another professor and author, Tyler Cowen, looks at deeper-seated reasons Americans tend to stay put in his latest book, "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream." Here's an inkling of his line of thinking from a piece he did for Time magazine, "The Unseen Threat to America: Why We Don't Leave Our Hometowns." He looks at falling rates of job switching, declining geographic diversity, job stability (believe it or not) and licensure laws, and has this take-away for why Americans don't move.

Here is a striking way to think about some of the underlying cultural shifts, given that mobility is often down the most for the less skilled workers. In such a setting, poverty and low incomes have flipped from being reasons to move to reasons not to move, a fundamental change from earlier American attitudes. Most troubling, the numbers also show that those who most need to move are, on average, the least likely to do it.

For Dr. Cowen, a hunkered down, stable, secure, predictably anguish-free life is the preferred mode for Americans who have the reins of financial, educational, health, time, and well-being in their hands. And that preferred mode of stasis works as an increasingly powerful counter-force against those who don't currently have control of those same reins. Cowen writes:

The decision to move reflects something very fundamental about one’s life. People move for better jobs, for marriages, for a different climate, for new and different social networks, or sometimes just to shake things up.

Americans traditionally have thought of themselves as the great movers, and indeed that was true in the nineteenth century and even through most of the twentieth. But since the 1980s, Americans have become much less restless in movements across the country, and more people are looking to simply settle down and entrench themselves.

And, wouldn't you know, we're seeing this play out in "homeownership tenure," which ATTOM Data Solutions notes this week is at a "new record high nationwide." Latest home sales report data from ATTOM shows that homeowners who sold in the 4th quarter of 2017 had owned their homes for an average of 8.18 years, up from 8.12 years in the prior quarter and up from 7.78 years from the same period a year earlier.

“It’s the most profitable time to sell a home in more than 10 years yet homeowners are staying put longer than we’ve ever seen,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions.

Yes, factor in the influence of the rising costs--interest rates, moving costs, house prices, etc.--of moving into reasons for the fact that more Americans are staying put, but if what Dr. Cowen is saying is true, something more profound lies at the root of an ever widening gyre of people who want to stay longer where they are.

Especially of concern are low rates of mobility and migration among younger American adults--usually the demographic locomotive of economic dynamism. Again, check out Bill Frey's take on the lack of mobility among our young adult cohort, with a glimmer of hope surfacing as job conditions improve in more markets around the United States. He writes:

The new data show that these millennials share the overall pattern of local mobility stagnation. Their recent within county migration rates of 12-12.4 percent from 2005-17 are the lowest since at least the mid-1990s when adults of this age moved in the 16-17 percent range and stood at 15 percent as late as 2009-10. Yet what is new is a noticeable uptick for inter-state migration for this group, rising to 3.3 percent – a level not seen since 2005-2006.

Trulia housing data analyst Alexandra Lee has a slightly different take on the motivations driving millennial mobility (say that 10 times fast).

  • When broken out by age group, the composition of movers has remained consistent over time. Mobility among millennials is at an all-time low—but that’s true for everyone else as well.
  • Marriage is less of a reason to move: younger Americans today are nearly twice as likely as they were in 2000 to move out to be on their own as opposed to marriage being a primary reason.
  • Young women are closing the gap for job-related moves. While job-related moves for young males has remained consistent over the last two decades, young women moved for jobs at a rate 5 percentage points higher in 2017 than in 2000.
  • Millennials are rebounding from the effects of the recession, moving for positive reasons – such as to own instead of rent, or for better housing – at higher rates, and moving for negative reasons – specifically, for cheaper housing – at lower rates.

What I'm not seeing signs of, however, is much insight that takes seriously the assertion Cowen makes that American society in the gravitational force toward "staying put," and, recognizing that fact, understanding what it means.

  • How is that phenomenon playing into local NIMBYist-driven policy on development and growth?
  • How does that inertia impact the sorting, matching, concentration, and widening disparities in wealth, educational attainment, health, etc.?
  • How does this tendency to stay longer in one place impact materials science, floorplan design that emphasizes ease of cleaning, maintenance, refreshing, and future-proofing?
  • How does the lack of mobility trend impact infill real estate valuations and opportunities vs. path-of-growth suburban and exurban land acquisition and planning?
  • How does this phenomenon tie to the latency in family formation, which, in turn, impacts the cycle of behavior of that late-forming family around what kinds of homes are "entry-level" and whether a standard "move-up" home becomes a "multi-generational" home to accommodate aging parents, who also want stability, proximity and connectedness to their familiar surroundings.

And there are countless more implications of a society and culture whose spirit and motivations are toward "staying the same" in a backdrop of high-velocity technological change.

What are some of the ramifications you see in this dramatic shift?

Cowen writes:

The decision to move reflects something very fundamental about one’s life. People move for better jobs, for marriages, for a different climate, for new and different social networks, or sometimes just to shake things up.

And what if they don't?