The Places People Go

Author: Cathy Liu

What is Geographical Mobility?

When considering whether someone will move locations for work, a phenomenon called geographic mobility, two demographic factors are traditionally important: college graduate status and employment status. Research on geographic mobility has focused on psychological factors such as personality, and economic factors such as tenure and economic standing, that affect an individual’s willingness to move. In current geographic mobility literature, there have been three major findings: (1) younger adults move more frequently than older adults, (2) college graduates are more likely to move than non-college graduates, and (3) those who are unemployed are more willing to move for work than those who are employed, regardless of age or sex.

Younger Adults Move More Frequently than Older Adults

As employees approach their late twenties, their willingness to relocate typically increases and reaches its peak (Schachter, 2004). Some have argued that this could be because individuals in this age range are still in the process of leaving home, getting married, starting their careers, and/or having children (Fischer, 2002). As age increases past the late twenties, unwillingness to relocate for work increases. Those in the 35 – 39 age group showed the highest rate of unwillingness to relocate. As age increased into the 40s, the desire to relocate closer to home and children increased which positively affected relocation for this cohort (Chapa & Wang, 2014). Although family and personal factors have a positive influence on relocation for older employees, older employees perceive their future career opportunities as less bright in comparison to those of younger employees which causes them to be less willing to relocate for work related purposes (Brett et al., 1993).

College Graduates are More Likely to Move than Non-College Graduates

From 2002 to 2003, 11 percent of those with a high school education moved for work, compared to 13 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Movers with a bachelor’s degree were more likely to move longer distances: 23 percent made an interstate move in comparison to 15 percent of those with a high school education (Schachter, 2004). From a sample of both in-state and out-of-state students from the University of Pittsburgh, 33 percent of students wanted to stay in Pittsburgh after graduation, while 35 percent wanted to move to a different state, and 5 percent wanted to move to a different country. Power motivation, the desire to obtain positions of authority, strongly predicted wanting to leave the state in search for better opportunities for work (Frieze et al., 2006). Those with higher education levels are better able to obtain more information and are better equipped to process the information which reduces search and transaction costs, thus lessening the burden when choosing to relocate.

Unemployment and Geographic Mobility Choices

In general, those who are unemployed are more likely to move than those who are employed (Schachter, 2004). Specifically, the migration rate is twice as high for unemployed people (10.9%) in comparison to employed people (5.7%; Saben, 1964). Further, unemployed individuals are more likely than employed individuals to migrate to an entirely new location, with no personal connections for work (Arntz, 2005). As the amount of search time increases, the probability of migration increases as well. Individuals who have the financial resources (e.g., unemployment insurance) to sustain them on a thorough job search for better opportunities and better fit with their interests and abilities may actually be more geographically mobile (Nunn et al., 2018). 

Remaining Research Questions

Although there has been extensive research regarding geographic and job mobility, there are still many questions that have not been answered. Little attention has been paid to the relationship between where individuals are willing to move to and their personal connections with each location. For example, is an out-of-state college graduate moving back to their hometown analogous to a high school graduate taking a job in a city where they have no personal connections? Both individuals are making moves, but can they be quantified as the same type of move?

There has been little focus on the psychological well-being of those who have moved from rural to urban areas even though urbanization has increased over the past century. On the other hand, many incentive programs exist to bring professionals to rural locations, and little work has been done to examine the psychological and health impacts of this type of move.

Lastly, in our modern society, it is important to study mobility in occupations where there has been a decline in jobs due to technological innovations that have rendered some professions obsolete. Is it that individuals are more willing to move because of job scarcity, or that they are less wiling to move because they do not see a long-term advantage to staying within the same occupation?

Importance of Understanding Geographic Mobility

The role of geographic mobility and job mobility is ever more important in our fast-paced, globalized society. For hiring managers, understanding who is (or is not) likely to accept a position outside of their current location is crucial to avoid wasted resources. For policy makers, it is important to understand the societal, technological, and economic changes that are influencing individuals’ job searches and migration patterns. For workers, it is critical to recognize the value and costs associated with geographic mobility, particularly as a function of age or as a result of job loss.

Job Mobility Takeaways
  1. An individual’s willingness to move is a result of both psychological and situational factors.
  2. Younger adults are more likely to move than older adults due to differences in life events and life stage.
  3. College graduates are more likely to move than non-college graduates due to access to more information and a stronger desire to obtain positions of authority.
  4. Those who are unemployed are far more likely to uproot and migrate to new locations without any personal connections.

Further Reading: 

Arntz, M. (2005). The Geographical Mobility of Unemployed Workers. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.732284

Brett, J. M., Stroh, L. K., & Reilly, A. H. (1993). Pulling up roots in the 1990s: Whos willing to relocate? Journal of Organizational Behavior,14(1), 49-60. doi:10.1002/job.4030140106

Borsch-Supan, A. (1990). The Double-edged Impact of Education on Mobility. Economics of Education Review,9(1). doi:10.3386/w2329

Chapa, O., & Wang, Y. J. (2014). Gender Role And Culture In Pre-Employment Relocation Decisions. Journal of Applied Business Research (JABR),30(4), 1109. doi:10.19030/jabr.v30i4.8658

Fischer, C. S. (2002). Ever-More Rooted Americans. City and Community,1(2), 177-198. doi:10.1111/1540-6040.00016v

Frieze, I. H., Hansen, S. B., & Boneva, B. (2006). The migrant personality and college students’ plans for geographic mobility. Journal of Environmental Psychology,26(2), 170-177. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2006.05.001

Nunn, R., Kawano, L., & Klemens, B. (2018). Unemployment Insurance and Worker Mobility. Tax Policy Center. Retrieved March 24, 2018.

Ratcliffe, M. (2010). A Century of Delineating a Changing Landscape: The Census Bureau’s Urban and Rural Classification, 1910 to 2010(Rep.). U.S. Census Bureau.

Saben, S. (1964). Geographic Mobility and Employment Status, March 1962—March 1963. Monthly Labor Review,87(8), 873-881. Retrieved March 24, 2018.

Schachter, J. P. (2004, March). Geographical Mobility: 2002 to 2003. Current Population Reports.

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