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On the way West, 1936. Photo: Bettman/Getty

For years, economists and other experts have been puzzled by a uniquely American anomaly: after centuries as probably the most restless place on the planet — its people shifting often thousands of miles around the country for a better life — the U.S. has at once become much more stationary.

The big picture: The explanations for all this stillness vary, but the most compelling are perhaps the simplest: people have dug in because there appears to be nowhere to go — no "promised land" of relatively high wages on which they can build greater dreams.

  • A much overlooked difference from the times of wagon trains and the Dust Bowl: The internet, which leaves very little mystery as to what lies at the other end of almost any road taken.

What's happening: In a paper released last week, David Autor, a pioneering labor economist at MIT, said the geography of jobs has changed. Cities, once the hope of people seeking a middle-class life, are now a symbol of the disappearance of well-paid, middle-skill work.

The culprits — automation and the shift of jobs abroad. And people know that it's the same story everywhere, so they are "acting rationally," Autor tells Axios, and staying home.

  • By the numbers: In a 2015 paper, economists from the Minneapolis Fed said American migration across state lines fell by 50% from 1991 to 2011. Such movement is at the lowest level since 1948, when the government began to track such figures.
  • Companies around the country are pleading for skilled workers. But they are looking for higher-level skills than those possessed by the men and women who ordinarily would be found in caravans, moving for better times.
  • What's largely left in the workforce are, on one end, jobs requiring only a high school education, and on the other college graduates. Only 20% of jobs require just a high school education, said Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

The internet is a key unspoken actor in this dynamic of motionlessness. According to the Minneapolis Fed report, people know much more what they are getting into, and are seeing little romance in experiencing it for themselves. "There isn't this a sort of naive, 'I'm from Northern Wisconsin, and I'm going [to California] for the Palm trees,'" Carnevale tells Axios.

I asked a string of other economists why Americans no longer move.

Joan Williams, UC Hastings: "A more important factor is the Two Body problem, as it's called in academia. Families now need two better jobs, not just one. And they have to be so much better that the family will all be better off even after paying for services they get a home for free, notably child and elder care."

Andrew Challenger, Challenger, Gray & Christmas: "It can be a cultural issue. People are scared of moving to the big city. When there is a very divided political and cultural moment, it could certainly keep some people from moving for opportunities."

Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown University: "From 1946 through the 1970s, you could be pretty fancy free. If you were able-bodied and had a good attitude, there was something for you out there. Even without a high school education, you could get a job. Then the boom was over, and everything changed. In the 1970s, automation across industries began, and starting in the early 1980s, a double-dip recession. Computing skills began to be required, and better education. We are just a mature post-industrial society. The Tom Joads are in trouble."

Mark Zandi, chief economist, Moody's Analytics: "Because people don’t need to move to the job, they can do the job where they already live. The creation and use of information can be done almost anywhere. This even applies to those with lesser skills, who are increasingly part of the information economy."

Daniel Shoag, Case-Western University: "The big action is on where people move, not so much a general decline in overall mobility. I know that's a controversial point, but my read of the data is more in line with this. In terms of where people move, I think it's mostly about out of control housing markets more than the internet."

Go deeper

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 11 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker