Which States are Winning Migration? Part IV

Lyman Stone
Nov 20, 2014 · 13 min read

Migration Varies Across Migrants’ Life Cycles

Yesterday, I wrote about how state migration varies with income and education. Understanding that relationship is important, but hidden beneath the data is an important story: life cycles. For most people, their lives will go through some roughly definable stages: infancy, childhood, young adulthood, college or early career, mid-life, parenthood, retirement, etc. Life cycles are defined by major life events: college attendence and graduation, entry or exit from the labor force, childbearing, first home purchase, marriage, retirement. When we track income or education, a huge part of what we’re actually tracking is life cycles. Why do tons of high school graduates move into an area and college graduates move out? Well, it’s a college town (or a state with many college towns).

Probably the place where life cycles show up most is when we disaggregate migration by age. In this post, I’ll use migration differences by age to explore the modern American economic life cycle.

Each map uses the same color scheme, however the scales are adjusted somewhat. Some groups, like 18 and 19-year olds, have a much wider variety of migration rates. As such, the scales were adjusted to give a roughly similar visual range to all maps. Thus while the broad colors (blue-green versus brown) mean the same things (gain vs. loss), and darker colors mean greater extremity, the darkness or lightness of colors shouldn’t be directly compared across the maps. Links to the full visualizations and data are provided at the end of the post.


Migration of Minors: Beginning Life With a Family

Relatively few children migrate unaccompanied. Some may, through the foster care system, but the vast majority of under-17 migrants are likely to migrant with or among family relations and households. This fact makes child-migration rates particularly interesting. Child migration rates make a good proxy for family migration rates. They show us which states are attracting households with kids.

There isn’t a huge among of variation (except Alaska, always an outlier). In other words, by and large, most families can find a place within their state to settle down and have the life they want. Especially once kids are in school, migration becomes difficult. I’ve lumped together ages 1–17, but, notably, migration rates for ages 1–4 are much higher than 5–17.

There are a few notable states, however. First, it’s noteworthy which states don’t have big migration flows one way or the other: California, Texas, and Florida all manage to have pretty moderate migration rates. Yes, California is negative while Texas and Florida are positive, but the overall effect isn’t that large: they’re all under 1%. These states allegedly extreme migration profiles, then, aren’t mostly about being family-friendly or primary school education quality, because those populations just aren’t driving their migration trends.

But in New York, South Dakota, and New Mexico, out-migration among families is somewhat higher. Explaining these rates takes multiple different theories. High cost of living in New York and immigrant family out-migration in New Mexico seem likely, but South Dakota’s story is unclear.

One way to explain South Dakota may be to look at the states gaining families, most notably North Dakota and Maine. North Dakota’s booming hydrocarbon economy isn’t just drawing single workers: it’s also drawing families with children (probably many from South Dakota). The working-age professionals attracted to Maine that I’ve mentioned previously also appear disproportionately likely to have kids.

But altogether, it’s hard to say clearly if there’s any trend to family migration. It doesn’t seem extremely likely, and it makes sense that families would migrate less.


Migration of 18 and 19 Year Olds: College and the First Big Job

Migration rates among 18 and 19 year olds show enormous extremity, from 34% in-migration rates for North Dakota to 9.6% out-migration from New Jersey. Migration trends among 18 and 19 year olds are driven by three major life events: high school completion, college enrollment, and entry into the adult labor force.

States that have universities with robust nationwide recruiting enjoy strong in-migration by college freshmen. Perhaps the best examples are the Carolinas and Utah. Especially at the metro level, it’s easy to find the impact of universities.

But at the state level, college migration is dwarfed by the economic burdens of financial separation from parents, the onrush of adult responsibility, and the accompanying entry into the world of adult work. Non-attendees of college drive the 2013 trends in 18–19 year old migration, not the college-bound. This has become more true in recent years than in the past as college-motivated migration has shriveled up in the wake of rising college costs, as I discussed two weeks ago.

These 18 and 19-year old workers often lack highly educated skills or abundant work experience, thus they gravitate towards jobs that don’t require as many skills, or that those with more job options don’t want: so mining. When we talk about migration of the young for work, we’re talking about really just a few industries: mining for men; hospitality, leisure, and domestic work for women. Thus the presence of booming oil production tends to draw young male migrants, while tourist- and retiree-focused economies draw many young female migrants.

These workers are often cut off from friends and family, lack strong social networks, aren’t yet familiar with the working world, and may be politically disengaged and financially excluded. They often live in substandard housing or dangerous neighborhoods, or in group settings.

Indeed, the real face of Millennial migration is absolutely not a hip app designer in Portland: it’s a young miner in North Dakota. Far from being ultra-urban and technological, young migrants are disproportionately oil workers, coal miners, home care workers, domestic helpers, seasonal tourism workers, and similar jobs. That’s the face of the Millennial migrant.

There’s a very real role for policy here. Efforts to advance financial inclusion, reduce crime in low-income areas, facilitate travel between home networks and migrant workers, keep housing costs affordable, and promote community and political enfranchisement can all serve to increase the chances that the young migrant advances.

Ultimately, the vulnerable conditions of young migrants are not a problem unless they become permanent. In the short term, a willingness to take unpleasant work is an asset for unskilled workers, not a liability. Making all work pleasant or forcing higher returns for that work doesn’t help unskilled workers: it excludes them. A better course of action is to promote mobility, engagement, and inclusion of low-skilled and young workers through community and civic engagement and appropriate regulation.


Migration of 20-Somethings: Get a Job, Get Married, Go to Grad School, Start Settling… Maybe

Migration rates for 20-somethings, or “Core Millennials,” are similar to 18 and 19 year olds, but do have a few key deviations. Undergraduate hubs like Utah or South Carolina diminish in prominence, while skilled-labor states like Washington, Oregon, or Colorado rise in prominence. Outmigration of 20-somethings is pervasive throughout the midwest and northeast as well.

Many sociologists regard the 20s as one of the most important periods of a person’s life, in terms of establishing their economic and personal trajectory through life. Choices made in your 20s regarding school, debt, work, residence, marriage, and family resonate for decades to come.

Several key life events show up in this map when compared to the previous map. The massive contrast between North Dakota and Minnesota’s migration rates fades: apparently Minnesotans work a few years in North Dakota, then go home. States with strong graduate school programs or with large employment markets for college graduation also see improved migration rates. The most striking example here may be Texas, which actually loses 18–19 year olds, yet sees large in-migration of 20-somethings.

So what does the average 20-something migrant look like? He or she is probably more likely to have a degree or pursue a graduate degree, and more likely to want to live with access to a major urban area. I’ve identified before that migration today remains suburban: but even individuals living in suburbia may want access to vibrant city centers via good road access, bike lanes, or public transit.

Taking that first post-college job can cause 20-something migration rates to spike once, then fall afterwards as they settle in. On the other hand, for those who pursue graduate degrees, several rounds of migration for ongoing education, fellowships, PhDs, and then the first job may boost migration. As more young people get graduate degrees even as college costs limit access, the variation in the migration experience will grow, especially for the young.


Migration of 30-Somethings: Patterns of Skill and Experience

For 30-somethings, the appeal of the mountain states appears to diminish, while more tend to move into eastern states. Maine’s robust migration shows up here, alongside Connecticut, and even slightly positive migration in New Jersey.

Much of the strength in Connecticut and New Jersey is due to out-migration from New York, and especially New York City. Former 20-somethings drawn to the city find in their 30s that city life is financially crushing, and having a yard and garage is actually very nice. The result is suburbanization into Connecticut and New Jersey.

Washington and Oregon also see strong migration among 30-somethings, driven by high demand for high-skilled jobs. Once workers are in their thirties, they’re more likely to have graduate degrees, wider professional networks, and more work experience and on-the-job skills. The result is that cities with high demand for skilled workers end up leaning on 30-somethings. Indeed, far from being “where young people go to retire,” the real story of migration in Portland, Oregon (or Seattle) is local demand by businesses for skilled, educated, or experienced workers. While hip downtowns and trendy residential districts matter (and influence business site selection), it’s really thriving corporations (and the low taxes that facilitate them) that draw migration in the Pacific northwest. In the grand scheme of things, Microsoft is more important than mixed-use neighborhoods, Boeing influences migration more than bikeshares, and Nike outweighs neighborhood activities.


Migration of Mid-Career Individuals: Career Advancement and Family Stability

Overall, migration rates for mid-career individuals are dramatically lower than for most other age groups. That migration among mid-career-aged individuals (ages 40–54) overwhelmingly reflects major employment changes. It’s rare that middle-aged people move for education, marriage, childrearing, or other key life events, though it does happen some. Plus, many of these individuals have children in school, which makes migration far more complex and costly.

Thus the migration of mid-career individuals can show where demand for skilled and experienced work is facing rising demand relative to local prices, and where it isn’t. By and large, most states have similar migration rates for this group as for 30-somethings. But there are a few exceptions.

Southern states generally see more strength for mid-career migrants than for 30-somethings, as do western states like Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, or South Dakota. Likewise, North Dakota switches from being a major migrant-receiver to a migrant-sender: the oil fields have less use for middle-aged people, and all that oil money has driven local price levels sky-high. Surrounding states have reaped the benefits of that migration.

Likewise, New Mexico has a significant worsening in migration from the 30s to the 40s and 50s. For whatever reason, New Mexico is having a hard time holding on to people who are at their peak earnings, and most likely to have kids. The same trend showed up for child migration in New Mexico. What’s going on there? New Mexico also saw disproportionate out-migration of the rich and the educated.

Whatever is happening in New Mexico to drive its starkly different migration trends relative to its neighbors seems to be a very localized phenomenon. In almost every chart, New Mexico is an outlier. If there are any New Mexicans reading (or folks in neighboring states), I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the story is here. Just leave a comment on the sidebar.


Migration of Late-Career Individuals: Finishing Strong and Readying for Retirement

Late-career migration looks strikingly similar to retiree migration, discussed below. Migration rates also pick up slightly compared to mid-career individuals. A key reason for this is preparation for retirement. Many Americans migrat to their retirement destinations well before they actually intend to retire, and may even work several years there. Furthermore, states drawing retirees often (though certainly not always) also have strong economies generally, and create many jobs.

Overall though, late career retirement reveals relatively few new insights on its own. Rather, we’ll see a more interesting story with retiree migration.


Migration of Retirees: Sunshine, Beaches, and Household Production

Finally, we come to retiree migration. Overall, very few retirees (ages 65+) actually migrate, as I showed in the first week. However, retiree migrations tend to be geographically concentrated. Because of their geographic concentration, retiree migrations create disproportionate effects in sending and receiving areas. That may be one reason why retiree migrations are also so prominent in the academic literature on internal migration.

A few states stand out for receiving retirees, namely Florida, Nevada, Arizona, South Carolina, and Delaware. Some of these show the classic Sunbelt story: warm weather or other climate advantages may attract retirees.

But there’s more to it than that. Not everywhere in Arizona, Florida, or Nevada attracts retirees. When we say retiree migration is concentrated, that means concentrated at the neighborhood level. Retiree migration overwhelmingly flows to specific cities and even specific parts of cities: retirement communities.

This raises a question: how do people in sending states like New York, South Dakota, or New Jersey know where to find these small, concentrated communities?

The answer is networks. Retiree migration’s closest analogue is migration by the foreign-born. Information flows informally (through churches, family members, older friends, advertisements on TV, news media, vacations) about certain specific areas that have good communities with amenities retirees want. Their migrations are strictly network-bound, focusing on staying within an existing social network in the receiving state, and preserving connections to home. Many “snow-birds” return home regularly, or expect family to visit them. This closely circumscribes what areas can effectively receive retirees.

When we think about migration as driven by networks of information, it can help explain why Delaware is a retiree hub. We know that Delaware attracts poorer migrants as well, and less educated, so it may be that Delaware is a favored location for blue-collar retirees.

But why Delaware specifically? One reason may be the beaches. No, I don’t mean that retirees are taking up surfing.

There are numerous paradigms for analyzing migration. Usually we use what’s known as the neoclassical paradigm: we compare wages, taxes, employment chances, etc, and think of migrants as rational income- or utility-maximizers for themselves. But what if they aren’t? Another paradigm, sometimes called the “new economics of migration,” focuses on household dynamics and familial divisions of labor.

Maybe retirees go to Nevada, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina, and Delaware because they’re warm and pleasant, and not to expensive. Or maybe they move their because their informational networks tell them that their relatives want warmer, more pleasant places. We think of retirement as the end of the “working life.” But it may just be a shift to “household production:” of childcare, for grandparents close to family, or household production of vacations for grandparents living in warm climates, or near the beach, or Las Vegas, or the Grand Canyon, or the spas of Sedona, or Disney World.

If this theory is true, then we would expect retiree migration to approximately follow tourist travel.

Do retirees think about this when they migrate? I can’t say for sure. But ask yourself: how many retirees that you know with children or grandchildren don’t think about their family’s likelihood of visiting them when they consider moving?


Shifts in priorities and household structure over the course of a lifetime can change migration patterns. Considerations about which member of the household works outside the home or not, who is responsible for leisure and vacation, how much education is necessary before entering the workforce, all shape the lives of Americans, and shape the decisions they make with relation to migration.

Life cycle migration analysis focused on key life events can illustrate opportunities for policy (and businesses!): financial inclusion, tourism campaigns, community and civic engagement, specific tax policies, financial aid and university program offerings, and other policy and quasi-policy choices have different impacts at different stages of the migrant life cycle.

So far this week, I’ve analyzed various types of migration across all 50 states, offering a few vignettes for each issue in order to illustrate key concepts. Tomorrow, I’m going to take a much deeper dive and look at migration in North Dakota, Delaware, and Illinois. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but I’ll just say if you’re anybody who cares about either state, you like colorful maps, or you’re just a migration data enthusiast, you’ll want to check back tomorrow.

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Follow me on Twitter. Follow my Medium Collection at In a State of Migration. I’m a grad student in International Trade and Investment Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School. I like to write and tweet about migration, airplanes, trade, space, and other new and interesting research. Cover photo fromUnsplash.

In a State of Migration

People Move. I Ask Why.

    Lyman Stone

    Written by

    Global cotton economist. Migration blogger. Proud Kentuckian. Advisor at Demographic Intelligence. Senior Contributor at The Federalist.

    In a State of Migration

    People Move. I Ask Why.