In 1984, Bruce Springsteen sang about tough times in "My Home Town":
"Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back . . ."
The response then was to leave town and look for a better future someplace else, usually in the South or West. There was always greener grass somewhere in the vast U.S. of A.
Not any more. Today, 25 years later, we've got tough times again. But instead of moving, people are staying put, courtesy of disappearing jobs and collapsing housing markets. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, population change in the 2007-08 period showed substantial reductions in migration rates within the U.S (see related chart). "The dawn of this decade saw an unprecedented number of Americans move across state lines within a year’s time—8.4 million," according to a recent Brookings Institution demographic study. "But migration slowed thereafter, correlating with the housing meltdown and broader economic recession. The number of interstate migrants dipped below 5 million in each of the last two years, and the rate of interstate migration has plummeted to its lowest recorded level."
In Florida, for example, typical annual gains of more than 200,000 new migrating residents in the early years of the decade gave way to outward migration last year. The people who would have moved to Florida tended to stay in coastal states, Brookings said, and California's and New York's out-migration fell by 40 to 50 percent. Several Northeast states saw reduced departures as well, "as many young couples, empty nesters and retirees hang on until new opportunities arise."
Where growth did occur, it was still centered in warm-weather parts of the country, according to the Census Bureau. Of the 50 fastest-growing metropolitan areas, all but three were located in the South or West. At the county level, the pattern was the same--94 of the 100 fastest-growing county populations were in the South (with 71) or the West (23). Not one was in the East.
Americans' wanderlust can be expected to pick up a bit as economic and housing conditions improve. But the boomtown mentality is not expected to return. Increasingly, Americans will be more likely to look for greener grass in their own neighborhoods. This trend, coupled with the wave of aging boomers, will focus unprecedented attention on community livability and "senior-friendly" attributes. The number of people aged 65 and older will jump by 36 percent during the decade beginning in 2010.
Brookings says boomers were the first "suburban generation," so if they wind up staying put, it will mean huge changes for communities that were structured to serve the needs of those boomers when their kids, schools and carpools were primary concerns. "A wide range of U.S. metro areas will face a tsunami of senior growth in the next decade," Brookings says. "The detached, car-dependent suburban communities that we built for the boomers and their families three and four decades ago are not particularly well-equipped to accommodate these individuals in their golden years."