Why Geographic Mobility May Be More Important than Ever

In this article I’d like to discuss a career issue that most probably don’t even think about. The human tendency is often to find a specific place, and “put down roots”. That certainly has emotional appeal, particularly if you have family near your home turf. But from an economic standpoint, it could be a strategic mistake. In an economy and job market that are becoming less predictable each year, geographic mobility may be more important than ever, and much more important than is commonly assumed.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the primary reasons why geographic mobility matters.

The Job Market is Extremely Fluid

If workers don’t necessarily have geographic mobility, employers certainly do. Sensitive to rising operating costs, they frequently relocate to more affordable environments. Or sometimes they move closer to a particular employment talent base. There’s been a recent trend of companies moving operations into big-city downtown areas, where young high-tech workers are clustered.

Why Geographic Mobility May Be More Important than Ever
Why Geographic Mobility May Be More Important than Ever

The point is, large employers have very little loyalty to the communities they operate in. If you as an employee lack geographic mobility, your job could very well leave you.

Pressure is coming from another direction as well. Most of the jobs being created in this century fall under the category of non-traditional. This includes first and foremost, contract workers. Those could include freelancers, on-call employees, and even seasonal workers.

If your employment is moving into the nontraditional realm, geographic mobility may become more important than ever. I did a stint as a contract mortgage underwriter in the late 1990s. But when the mortgage industry took it’s second-to-the-last plunge during the Dot-com bust, the only contract underwriter jobs were out of town.

Lacking mobility at the time, and having small kids, I had to turn those assignments down. My income suffered as a result.

This is no longer an unusual situation. Contract workers now make up 20% of the workforce, and that percentage is expected to grow steadily.

If you do contract work, you have to be prepared to follow the work, wherever it may be. If you’re lucky, it’ll be in your home city. But it could very well be an out-of-town assignment. If you can’t go, your income will suffer.

Cities and Regions Rise and Fall

Hard as it is to believe now, when I was growing up the Midwest was an employment hotbed. The Northeast, where I lived, was the area people were leaving. Often it was to go to jobs in Midwestern cities. Sadly, in much of the Midwest, that’s no longer true. Entire swaths of the Midwest are now labeled as the “Rust Belt”.

But it turns out that’s not even unusual in human history. Areas tend to go through cycles of boom and bust. Early in their development, when they’re highly affordable, they become magnets for both people and businesses. They go through a long growth cycle. But that comes to an end either with rising prices or with changes in technology and economics.

It’s been common throughout history, but seems more pronounced now with the cycles becoming shorter.

In recent decades, jobs have shifted back to the Northeast, and much of that region is now flourishing.

It’s been noted that much of where you stand financially is determined by geography. For example, if you live in the Northeast or the West Coast, you have much better chance of becoming wealthy, due to rising property values (assuming you’re a property owner) and concentrations of high-paying jobs.

While this isn’t to advocate a nomadic lifestyle, there may come a time to “get out of Dodge”. It could happen when entire industries leave an area, which can also have the effect of depressing wages in other businesses.

You May Get Priced Out of Your Current Location

It’s an article of faith that rising property values are a good thing. I take issue with that whole concept. Rising property values cause silent but devastating problems.

As property values rise, so do real estate taxes. In areas that already have high property taxes, continued increases can force people to leave the area. This is particularly true of the elderly, who may not have the income to accommodate increases. But it can also affect younger households, who may find themselves unable to afford the monthly payment in areas where they are either employed, or have grown up.

Particularly on the east and west coasts, long-time residents are being forced to leave traditional home areas due to rising prices. Not only can rising prices make buying a house in an area unaffordable, but it can also cause rents to rise to ridiculous levels.

Geographic mobility can enable you to move to a more affordable area if the need arises.

You May Need to Follow Family

This isn’t an employment related factor, but it could be one of the biggest reasons why geographic mobility is desirable. With people living longer than they have in the past, the need to take care of an aging loved one has become more common. And with children moving to different states and regions, there may be a desire to follow.

Building some type of geographic mobility into your occupation lifestyle would make following family possible. That isn’t to say you must follow family wherever they go, but rather that you might want to have the option available.

How to Create Geographic Mobility in Your Life

Anyone can achieve geographic mobility by making a few changes:

Career mobility. This involves developing transferable job skills. Earlier this week I did an article on digital nomads, which is primarily people who earn their living on the web, and are not limited by geography. You don’t have to be a tech worker to be mobile. For example, you could have a portable business, or the type of skills that are either in demand throughout much of the country, or could be transferred to different industries.

Rethink homeownership. This article, written back in 2008, during the Financial Meltdown, made the case that high levels of homeownership made it difficult for workers to follow jobs. A worker’s job would leave, and he couldn’t follow. Depending on the stability of your employment, and where you think the economy’s going, renting may offer more geographic mobility than owning.

Getting out of debt. Sometimes making a geographic move involves earning less money. A move may be impossible if you have high monthly payments due to high debt. You can increase your geographic mobility by lowering or eliminating your debt.

Have a generous amount of savings. This doesn’t mean you need to be rich. But it does mean you need to have some extra room in your finances to accommodate change. As well, making a geographic move will cost some money, even if you do it on the cheap. If you’re broke, the move will probably never happen.

Avoiding an entrenched mindset. Even if you have all the other factors under control, if you’re “set in your ways”, change is impossible. You have to be aware of what’s going on in the economy and in your occupation, be open to new ideas, and be willing to act where necessary.

Final Thoughts on Why Geographic Mobility May Be More Important than Ever

Much of the economic dislocation is because the world is changing faster than people are. Most people want nothing more than to have their little place in the sun, then do their best to block out the changes taking place around them.

That’s certainly always an option. But it’s also an excellent way to get run over by events.

Change is happening quickly, and promises to accelerate going forward. It’s only by building flexibility, resilience and mobility into your life and your thinking that you’ll be able to adjust.

For better or worse, geographic mobility is becoming increasingly necessary. I’m not very transient myself, but I like having the option to make a move if I need to. I’ve built that into my business and my lifestyle, being fully aware that I can’t know what the future holds. It’s another aspect of the mobile creative lifestyle that’s becoming increasingly necessary with each passing year.

Have you considered the importance of geographic mobility in your own life?

( Photo by youkeys )

2 Responses to Why Geographic Mobility May Be More Important than Ever

  1. Granted it may be a skill (geographic mobility) but not everyone can do this. You even stated some of the key reasons one can’t do this (children). Not everyone works and lives like people who are in the military do (temporary assignments which can change based on where you are transferred to). But businesses can learn something from the military who does take care of its own by providing housing for the military units. Granted the choice of the housing may not be trendy but it does provide the roof over the family. Silicon Valley does nothing for its workers except for the billionaires, everyone else has to scramble to find housing, which is one of the reasons there’s a tent city in that vicinity.
    With cheap labor (except for the top positions) little is done to encourage those who migrate to jobs unless you provide your own version of housing (like RV) which makes it hard to bring a family along. Okay I get the point that businesses have to make a profit to keep growing and change locations because of this, but the reasons corporations are changing locations are mainly to get tax benefits for a certain time period and then they move to another location, regardless of the lower echelon employees who run the daily part of the business.
    But like the article encompasses, one needs skills that can be easily adapted to any job opportunity if the nomad life is not your cup of tea. Remember that great job with that great salary is not always the best for everyone.

  2. Hi Maria Rose – I’m trying to look at the job market from a different angle in the article. Right now the economy is relatively good, so jobs are somewhat more stable than a few years ago. But that will likely change in the next downturn. There were a lot of studies and articles in the post-2008 era that dealt with this idea that part of the reason the recovery was so long and slow in coming was the inability of people to follow jobs. I think with so many jobs going contract, it may be even more severe in a few years. To the degree each of us are able, we need to become more flexible. The economy is increasingly becoming a greased pig. There are only general ways to deal with it, since we can’t know what’s going to happen next.

    The other issue of course is housing costs. It’s more pronounced in some areas and regions than in others. You could be forced to make a move for lack of ability to afford a community you’ve been living in for a long time.

    Along that line, when I lived in New Jersey back in the Stone Age, the population was becoming increasingly older, as if the younger people were disappearing. They were. When we moved to Georgia, I found out where a lot of them were going – the same place we were. That could be another reason for mobility, to follow your kids to where they can afford to live. On that front, my wife and I are keeping our options open, though both kids are planning to stay in New England for the time being. I understand if they can’t, so we’re being prepared for anything.

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