America's twenty- and thirty-somethings, traditionally the most mobile age group, now change residences far more than older adults, and they cover greater distances in their moves. About a third of all people in their 20s changed residences in 1997, more than double the rate for those 35 to 44 years old, according to the Census Bureau's 1998 Current Population Survey. This fact is part and parcel of new demographic trends that are producing some broad regional shifts across the country. It is also a by-product of the new global information economy, and is evidence of a youth culture that has made mobility and change a crowning virtue. - "A whole generation of young people see the world as their job market and their playground, and they have a one-way ticket," says Elissa Moses, who last year completed a massive survey of teen attitudes as vice-president of global marketing for Philips Electronics. This trend that will only grow more important as the generation of children born to baby boomers comes of age. Among young Americans, ages 15 to 19, the survey found barely half expected to live in the country of their birth, and only slightly more than a quarter expected to live in their hometowns.
Throughout the 1990's Census Bureau surveys portrayed a nation that seemed to be losing its taste for migration. As the economy strengthened, the nation's mobility rate - the share of the population moving from one home to another each year - drifted down to 16 percent, the lowest point since the close of World War II, and a far cry from the 20 percent figure common during the 1950's and 1960's. And, most of the roughly 43 million who moved each year did not go very far, just taking up another residence in the same metropolitan area. The toplines, however, are deceiving. From affluent young people gentrifying urban cores to recent immigrants filling suburban apartment complexes, the people who are moving are some of the nation's most desirable consumer and worker groups.
But knowing where they will end up is not as easy as it used to be. The key issues in this question center on the relationship between human flows and America's increasingly global and digital economy. "The Internet has changed the rules," says Mitchell Berger, CEO of Stephen-Bradford Search, a New York City-based placement firm. For one, a new breed of technocratic nobles - the young, highly-skilled, well-paid creators of the information economy - are hopping from place to place in search of ever better financial and lifestyle opportunities.
The movement of New Economy workers, and the development of technology work centers is crucial in shaping the economic landscape. In the past two decades, metropolitan areas with technology-intensive employment have experienced explosive rates of economic growth, vastly outpacing the U.S. at large. Taking into account employment growth and earnings per job, NPA Data Services estimates that San Jose produced an average annual economic growth rate of 5.0 percent from 1969 to 1998, compared with 2.6 percent for the U.S. as a whole. Technology centers Raleigh-Durham, Austin, and Fairfax County boasted annual growth rates of 5.5 percent, 7.2 percent, and 8.0 percent, respectively, during the same period. Each of these technology hotbeds helped expand their states' economies significantly faster than the national average as well. Wooing these workers who are the engines of economic growth in the information age will be increasingly vital to the cities and states which want to reap the rewards of growth.
The wanderings of the techno-aristocracy are in turn replicated by another tribe - the similarly young, but low-skilled, low-wage immigrants who provide all manner of services to the gentry of the ex-urbs. Growth masks movement, especially in the most glittering new towns well-endowed by high-tech businesses. Unlike suburbanites of generations past, many of the new residents in fast-growing communitiesare sojourners rather than stakeholders. "In the high-tech market, people stay in a job no more than two to three years at a time," says Erik Jones, a staffing consultant at Knowledge Workers, a Fairfax, Virginia-based placement firm. "Those people move constantly to where they find work."
That said, familiar patterns - frost belt to sunbelt, city to suburbs, immigrants to Los Angeles and New York - are still apparent in the numbers. But, a cumulative look at year-to-year census surveys over the past decade, as well as recent findings by some top demographers, marketers and sociologists suggest that other trends are developing. Little by little, city by city, the landscape is changing in ways that may not make the headlines until the full results of the 2000 Census are available in a couple of years. In the meantime, the movers are reshaping markets, creating new kinds of communities and setting the stage for a new understanding of what it means to be mobile in America.
No consensus has taken hold around these trends. Instead, the big thinkers offer contrasting but not necessarily contradictory interpretations. William H. Frey of the University of Michigan, sees the rise of new "regional geographic divisions being just as important as city versus suburb or rural versus urban." The country will divide sharply between "Melting Pot regions" and "Heartland regions," he argues in a study for the Milken Institute, written with Ross C. DeVol. Immigrants concentrated in a few major cities will produce areas that are "increasingly younger, multi-ethnic and culturally vibrant." Meanwhile, boomers will retreat to parts of the New West and the New South, as well as parts of the farm belt and the rust belt to create areas that are "older, more staid, and less ethnically diverse."
Focusing more on the way that economic development shapes human population flows, observers such as Saskia Sassen at the University of Chicago and John D. Kasarda at the University of North Carolina, argue that the globalization of trade and finance, along with the rise of high-tech industries are creating relationships among population centers as diverse as New York City and Austin, characterized by shared new forms of economic development. These areas have stronger links to each other than to their surrounding regions, and large numbers of people migrate to these cities to pursue career opportunities, generally ignoring the culture and history that once sharply contrasted the various regions.
"In today's economy the only factor that ultimately distinguishes one geographic region from another is climate," says Kasarda. Making a similar argument with a different emphasis, Sassen contends, "some cities are highly connected to the global economy and others are not, and that has become a key factor in determining their human content."
Consensus does form around one point however. Migration is a resurgent force in defining economic, cultural and political realities. Some call it "demographic dynamism," the idea that an individual's changing characteristics such as income and location are more important than the permanent ones, gender and race. Others invoke the "primacy of people over place" or "the space of flows." Whatever the catch-phrase, the bottom line is the same: It is a mistake to rest on old assumptions about where people live in the United States and why. Underlying this consensus is a widespread belief that we are on the eve of an upsurge in mobility, not just on a national scale but globally.
City centers, especially in the nation's biggest metropolises, have become hosts to resurgent capital markets. Meanwhile, suburbs and ex-urbs attract the research, development and manufacturing sites for information technology and other science-based industries. Both the "Global Cities," as Sassen describes them, and the "Nerdistans," so-named by Joel Klotkin of Pepperdine University, share some common characteristics. "The global economy," says Sassen, "is characterized by highly specialized networks of professionals who handle financial transactions, develop software, manage portfolios, construct information networks and manage international trade. These people are highly mobile as individuals and their work crosses all kinds of boundaries, city to city and nation to nation."
In the past people followed jobs, but Kasarda argues that the denizens of the New Economy often have multiple job options and earn so much money that "cultural amenities, consumption opportunities, climate, the availability of good outdoor recreation, even the quality of restaurants become factors of prime importance in where members of this technocratic class choose to live.' Competition for these workers has reached the point that firms consider the lifestyle choices of key employees when they decide where to locate, according to Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.
Inevitably, the growth of these new economic centers "changes the texture of the regions around them," says Kasarda. For example, The Research Triangle Park, the core of the high-tech ex-urb in the North Carolina Piedmont has 43,000 employees earning an average salary of $54,145. Inserting that kind of population has fundamentally changed consumption patterns for an entire community, according to Kasarda. "You now have a multiplicity of high-end retailers like Nordstrom's and an enormous variety in the food sector, every kind of ethnic restaurant, coffee shops and bakeries, and the traditional population base would never have supported these enterprises," Kasarda says.
In many cases such as the Dulles and I-270 corridors outside Washington, DC or the I-35 corridor outside Austin, there is not much of a population base to begin with. Indeed, starting from scratch in rolling fields is part of the appeal in building business parks or residential in extra-urban areas. But that means labor has to be imported for construction, employment in core businesses, and manning the secondary businesses. Internal migration has not been able to meet this demand during the tight labor markets of the late 1990's. From computer programmers to janitors, immigrants have filled the gap, helping create communities that are ethnically diverse at their moment of origin. While the traditional port-of-entry states - New York, California, Florida - continue to attract large numbers of immigrants, the fastest growth rates for immigrant populations at the end of the decade could be found in places like North Carolina, Utah and Georgia.
In addition to the global tribe of new technocrats, the old residential base, and immigrants, there is a fourth category affecting the landscape: affluent retirees. Northern California, parts of New England beyond Boston, and central North Carolina have all become retirement havens in part due to the amenities created by new economic development, according to separate research by Kasarda and Fry. The restaurants, galleries, and quality medical care that the technocrats demand also appeal to retirees with means.
In the late 1990's, migration redistributed populations in what might be the first stages of a major geographic shift in markets. The Census Bureau's annual Current Population Surveys (CPS) show that the number of domestic migrants moving into the Northeast was as high at the end of the decade as at any point in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, departures decreased and with immigration making up for continued, though smaller losses in the domestic population, the Northeast showed population growth for three years straight (1996-98) for the first time since the early 1980's.
The West - the entire region, not just California - began to experience net losses for the first time in its history after the 1990-1991 recession, and has seen mounting net losses of domestic migrants even as the economy revived. For the first time in its history, the West is in the same position the Northeast has faced since the 1970's: it only avoids population declines because arrivals from abroad make up for the net loss due in domestic migration.
The South continued to attract by far the highest numbers of domestic migrants and scored striking gains among people in a number of high-profile and high-pay job categories. Among executives and professionals, administrative and clerical workers, the construction trades and in the finance/insurance/real estate category, the South decisively attracted more people than any other region.
The same kind of dynamism is evident at the metropolitan level. The 1998 census survey showed that suburbs remained by far the most popular destination for movers both within and between metropolitan areas. Central cities had a net loss of 2.6 million while there was a net gain of 2.4 million in metropolitan communities beyond the urban core. But, the migration to the suburbs is less and less a white middle class phenomena.
Since the current era of large-scale immigration began in the late 1960's movers from aboard overwhelmingly have headed for central cities. Through much of the 1980's and 1990's this influx overcame the out-migration of domestic residents and kept many cities from suffering population losses. But since the mid-1990's another stream has developed. Immigrants increasingly are heading for the suburbs because that is where they can find jobs. The 1998 census survey showed that substantially more movers from abroad ended up outside central cities (618,000 people) than inside (465,000 people).
Over the long-term the large number of immigrants landing in suburban areas could spell trouble for big cities trying to hold their population base. More immediately, this flow is transforming suburban consumer markets. An analysis of Hispanic spending patterns conducted by Frey and DeVol for the Milken Institute found that Latinos relative to other demographic groups spend more on food, utilities and shelter even after adjusting for family size and income. Perhaps surprisingly for a population that includes so many newcomers to the United States, Hispanics display considerable loyalty to well-advertised, nationally recognized brands and are less friendly to generic products. "What we see increasingly are different elements of a community that share a geographic space but that are connected to different economic dynamics," said Sassen. "Some have no strong connection to the region while others are deeply imbedded in the social landscape. This creates different niches within a market, but when you put them altogether they make the markets grow."