Leslie Knope’s endearing enthusiasm for her beloved town of Pawnee in NBC’s Parks and Recreation may be rubbing off on the rest of us, because an increasing number of Americans are “going local.” From food to clothing to breweries, locally owned and locally grown have become premium labels. Whether it’s an objection to corporate franchising, a push for more local jobs or a desire to utilize local resources more sustainably, “going local” stems from a real sense of attachment or belonging to place.
In a recent survey, Barna studied adults’ relationships to their cities and towns: where they live, why it’s important to them and how they ended up there. While most American adults either never plan to move or aren’t sure if they ever will (59%), at some point they decided where to plant their roots. So, what was it about that place that drew them in the first place? Why do people live where they live—and what keeps them living there?
A vast number of Americans make a home for themselves in suburban neighborhoods (45%), and although factors shift in importance according to life-stage, the most consistent characteristics that make a place special or unique to people are relational. Factors like “family” and “friendships” dominate the data, while “work” and “entertainment”—although more relevant earlier in adulthood—become less central to one’s sense of place as life goes on.
What other reasons do adults consider when moving to a new place? How often do they move, and how do age, income and religion factor into the equation?
Where Do Americans Live?
It’s been 50 years since Eisenhower championed the formation of the Interstate highway system in the United States. These sprawling mega-highways, many of which run right through city centers, made it easier to commute into the city, literally driving the American middle class out into the suburbs. This mass suburbanization in metropolitan areas across the country is reflected in the data, with almost half of Americans describing their neighborhoods as “suburban” (45%). Only one-quarter of adults describe where they live as “urban” (25%) and a further quarter say they live in a “rural” area (24%).
Unsurprisingly, life stage plays a key role in where Americans call home. The younger people are, the less likely they are to live in an area described as “rural.” Fewer than one in five Millennials (18%), and just slightly more Gen-Xers (22%) live in rural areas, compared with nearly three in 10 Boomers and Elders (28%, each). Education, work opportunities and attractive lifestyles in cities like Washington, DC, and New York have long drawn younger generations away from rural communities and toward the glitz of the big city—and fewer and fewer young adults are returning once they leave.
However, if you do happen to live in a rural area, it’s more likely than not that you’re religious. Evangelicals (31%) and practicing Christians (27%) make up almost two-thirds of those living in rural areas, compared with those who identify as having no faith (15%). This is supported by Barna’s research on churched and unchurched cities in the United States. The most unchurched cities are densely populated urban centers such as San Francisco (44% of residents have not been to a religious service in the last six months), Boston (40%) and New York (38%). Compare this to the most churched cities like Birmingham (67% have been to a religious worship service in the last six months), Baton Rouge (62) and Salt Lake City (62%), all cities in less populated regions of the country.
While younger generations are opting out of rural life, the suburbs have become the neighborhood of choice for Gen-Xers—with half of them calling the suburbs home. This is probably the result of new young families transitioning from the hustle and bustle of city life to the safe, quiet, spacious and more affordable suburbs. But the suburbs may not be as cheap as one might suspect. While square footage may be less expensive in the suburbs, the increased costs of commuting, vehicle expenses and property taxes still make suburban living something of a privilege. Those who make $50-$100k are twice as likely to live in the suburbs (49%) than cities (27%) or rural areas (20%) and those who make more than $100k are three times as likely to live in the suburbs (58%) than anywhere else. In contrast, adults who make less than $50k are almost evenly split between cities (29%), suburbs (32%) and rural areas (31%).
To Stay or Go?
There has been much debate over the contribution of “rootlessness” to the contemporary problems of American communities: Increased mobility can reduce social ties and cause disorder (crime, etc.) in more transient neighborhoods compared to areas with greater stability. But contrary to this oft-touted notion of the American “nomad,” it appears that, in actuality, Americans tend to stay put. Mobility in the United States has declined over the long term, and most adults (59% according to the Barna survey), either never plan to move, or aren’t sure if they ever will.
But the difference between the generational groups is striking. When asked how much longer they plan to live in their current city or town, Millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to say they plan to move in the short-term. They are at least twice as likely to say they plan to stay for “less than a year” (14%, compared to 6% of the general population) or just “another 1 to 4 years” (28%, compared to 16% of the general population). Of course, Millennials are also at a stage in life when moving is both more necessary and much simpler: Younger people often move for college, for early career shifts and advancements. They are also less likely to have children, to own homes or to have established institutional or relation connections.
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But as Americans get older and settle down, they tend to stay put. Boomers and Elders are three to six times more likely to say they plan on living in their current city at least another decade (39% of Boomers and 63% of Elders, compared to just 12% of the general population), if not indefinitely (23% of Boomers and 63% of Elders say they never plan to move). But the reasons that drive Millennials to be mobile are no longer as pertinent in those life-stages, because most Boomers and Elders have already completed their education and are either retired or have settled into a career. It will be interesting to see if Millennials—in light of their current desires for mobility—will follow suit as they age or continue to be nomadic later in life.
The Reason Behind the Move
While Americans may not be moving as much as they used to—and while they may settle down in a place as they grow older—most people have moved at least once in their lifetime. Only one quarter of Americans live in the town where they were born. So, what are the primary reasons people make those moves?
Among adults who were not born in their current city or town, the most influential factor in their decision to move was “family” (42%). As one might expect, many people also move for their careers—work is the second-most cited reason people move to a new city, with nearly three in 10 Americans saying they moved to their current location for “work” (28%).
The next most common factors are “the city itself” (9%) and “education” (4%). Even though family and work are clear favorites among all age groups, “education” is nearly twice as important for Millennials as they go off to college in a new city. “Work” is highest among Gen-Xers, and “family”—although the most important factor among all age groups—is highest among Boomers.
What the Research Means
“Where you live—the landscape, the type of neighborhood, the demographic make-up—is an important factor that influences personal identity,” says Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group and the lead analyst on the study. “Places are where we build families, create communities and make memories. They contribute to our sense of self, helping us to understand who we are and where we came from.
“Churches and ministry leaders in particular, should pay attention to the significant pull that relationships have on people,” continues Stone. “Relationships are the primary reason people live where they live. Although factors shift in importance according to life stage, the most consistent characteristics that respondents in the Barna survey pointed to as making a place special or unique were relational. There is enormous value and happiness to be found in having and maintaining a strong social structure, and where better to find such a structure than the family? But even for those people who have moved for work, relationships may be the thing that will keep them in their current community. People are longing for these relational bonds and the church has a unique opportunity to be ‘family’ to those who may be far from theirs.”
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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted February 3 to February 11, 2015. The survey included 1,000 adults 18 and older. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.
Generations: Millennials are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Gen-Xers, between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important to their lives and who have attended a worship service, other than for a special occasion, one or more times during the past month.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© 2015 by Barna Group.