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US mobility for young adults falls to 50-year low

Many putting off big decisions in sluggish economy

WASHINGTON — Mobility for young adults in the United States has fallen to its lowest level over the past 50 years as cash-strapped 20-somethings shun home-buying and refrain from major moves in a weak job market.

The new 2013 figures from the Census Bureau, which reversed earlier signs of recovery, underscore the impact of the sluggish economy on young people, many of them college graduates, whom demographers sometimes refer to as ‘‘Generation Wait.’’

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Burdened with college debt, toiling in low-wage jobs, they are delaying careers, marriage, and having children. Waiting anxiously for their lucky break, they are staying put and doubling up with roommates or living with Mom and Dad, unable to make long-term plans or commit to buying a home — let alone pay a mortgage.

Many understood after the 2007-2009 recession that times would be tough. But few say they expected to be in economic limbo more than four years later.

‘‘I’m constantly looking for other jobs,’’ says Jeremy Bills, 27, of Nashville, Tenn., who graduated from Vanderbilt University in May 2011 with a master’s degree in human and organizational development. Originally from Florida, Bills has stayed put in his college town in hopes of finding a job in management consulting or human resources. Instead, he has mostly found odd jobs, like pulling weeds and dog-sitting.

Bills says he pursued a master’s degree to bolster his credentials after getting a bachelor’s degree in 2008, shortly before the financial meltdown. Instead, he finds himself struggling financially and worrying that the skills he learned in school — where he incurred $20,000 in student loan debt — are atrophying.

‘‘It’s not like riding a bicycle,” Bills said. “You can’t just jump into a career position so many years after training.’’

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Among adults aged 25 to 29, just 4.9 million, or 23.3 percent, moved in the 12 months ending March 2013. That is down from 24.6 percent in the same period the year before, and the lowest level since at least 1963.

By metropolitan area, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Houston were among the top gainers in young adults, reflecting stronger local economies. Denver and Washington, D.C., topped the list of destinations for college graduates.

Demographers say the delays in traditional markers of adulthood — full-time careers and homeownership — may prove to be longer-lasting.

Roughly 1 in 5 young adults aged 25 to 34 is now disconnected from work and school.

‘‘Young adulthood has grown much more complex and protracted, with a huge number struggling to reach financial independence,’’ said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the private Population Reference Bureau. ‘‘Many will get there, but at much later ages than we’ve seen in the past. More and more, we’re seeing many young adults routinely wait until their 30s to leave the parental nest.’’

The decline in migration among young adults is being driven by a drop in local moves within a county, which fell to the lowest level on record. Out-of-state moves also fell, from 3.8 percent in 2012 to 3.4 percent, but remained higher than a 2010 low of 3.2 percent.

Young adults typically make long-distance moves to seek a new career, while those who make local moves often do so when buying a home.

While homeownership across all age groups fell by 3 percentage points to 65 percent from 2007 to 2012, the drop-off among adults aged 25 to 29 was much larger — more than 6 percentage points, from 40.6 percent to 34.3 percent. That reflects in part tighter lines of credit after the 2006 housing bust. Declines in homeownership for those ages 40 and older over in that five-year period were more modest.

The District of Columbia had the lowest homeownership rate across all age groups at 41.6 percent, followed by New York at 53.9 percent. West Virginia had the highest homeownership rate at 72.9 percent.

Meanwhile, overall migration among adults 55 and older held steady at 4.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, up from a low of 4 percent in 2011. Metro areas with the biggest gains included Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, and several in Florida. Many cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and coastal areas posted losses.

‘‘The post-recession period has given a bigger boost to seniors than to young adults in their willingness to try out new places for retirement,’’ said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the figures. ‘‘Many young adults, especially those without college degrees, are still stuck in place.’’

‘‘For them, low mobility might be more than a temporary lull and could turn into the ‘new normal.’ ’’

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