Are people moving more often?

At the Stephen Smith versus Julie Bishop education debate at the Melbourne Institute on Thursday, they discussed their mutual plans for a national curriculum. While I think this a bad idea, the aspect that appeals to many people is helping people who move interstate. Smith claimed that we are an increasingly mobile society. But is this true?

Back in 2004, I wrote a post questioning this conventional wisdom. I reported then:

The first time the census asked about any residential move in the last 5 years, in 1971, 60.6% had not moved. The last time they asked, in 2001, it was 57.6%.

Most of these moves are to places nearby. Only 4.8% of the population moved interstate between 1996 and 2001, compared to 4.4% between 1966 and 1971. The 4.8% is the lowest rate since the 1971 to 1976 period; it peaked at 5.5% between 1986 and 1991

Since then, of course, we’ve had another census. Though the ABS has not yet put out a publication on population mobility, the census website allows you to create tables yourself on many topics, including internal migration (I wish they would do this for other datasets).

In 2006, 61.5% of the population was living in the same place as they had been in 2001. That’s the highest proportion ever recorded. Interstate mobility has been trending down since 1991, and has hit its lowest ever figure of 4.5% over the five years beween 2001 and 2006.

One thing that these census statistics don’t record is Australians moving overseas, a number that definitely is trending up. My own friends move overseas on a disconcertingly frequent basis (is it me?). It’s irrelevant to the national curriculum debate, but this would help explain mobility perceptions. For example, if I add the permanent departures in the immigration statistics to the interstate movers in the census statistics, I get an interstate/overseas mobility rate of 5.36%. But that’s still lower than interstate movers alone between 1986 and 1991.

Why is the common assumption of increased mobility inaccurate? It is at least partly because our brains aren’t very good at making comparisons over time, particularly when it involves the very complex task of measuring other people’s behaviour. That’s hard enough to assess now, let alone recall what it was like in the past. Because high mobility is noticeable at any given time, and we tend to forget about the people who moved in the past, our brain assumes that there is an upwards ‘trend’.

But why is within-Australia mobility actually going down? I haven’t extracted the figures by age (you have to download each state separately), but mobility peaks when people are in their twenties and after that decreases with age. So as the population ages, all other things being equal mobility goes down. Whether that explains all of the decline I don’t know, but it will almost certainly explain some of it.

6 thoughts on “Are people moving more often?

  1. I think there is a further qualifications you need here
    (1) My guess is that people with kids that go to school don’t move nearly as much as people without, for obvious reasons (especially overseas).
    and four further observations:
    (2) Higher housing/transaction costs make it harder to move within Australia if you own your own place (the same is true for markets with low rental vacancy).
    (3) Its become much easier to move overseas in the last two decades. For some areas (academics, and I imagine teachers, doctors, and all the other professions in short supply everywhere), depending on what country you are moving to, its probably easier to move overseas than interstate, because when you get a job overseas you often get a better chunk of your moving expenses paid and housing allowance for some time.
    (4) The above two points are related. High housing costs encourage you to move overseas, because if you don’t own your own place, you obviously have less reason to stay in the same place (for both monetary and non-monetary reasons). Similary, some places in Australia are now so expensive for rent (like Sydney), its hardly worth moving there unless you are getting a huge salary if you have another offer overseas. So often the trade-off is between an expensive Australian city or someone cheaper overseas. You lose out moving interstate but often win moving overseas wins in terms of these costs.
    (5) Tax rates/living costs for singles (i.e., those that can move the most easily) are far higher in Australia than many of our competitor countries (and the opportutities are often better even for countries with similar tax rates), which makes moving overseas more appealing than moving interstate. This combines with point (3) to increase the rate of working overseas versus moving interstate.


  2. Andrew, maybe the point should also be made that, regardless of how mobile Australian society currently is, it might be a good economic/social outcome to make it easier for families to be more mobile. (Making it easier for the unemployed to go where the work is, for example.) Arguably, smoothing out the curriculum differences in the State school systems (which is where the families seeking work are going to be sending their kids) would serve that purpose.


  3. Conrad – I agree high transaction costs are a deterrent to selling in Australia, but as I understand it Australia has high rates of moving house by international standards. I can’t quickly find a table of comparative figures, but while looking I did find that 11% of British people moved in the year to April 2001. In the year before the 2001 census here, 17.7% moved. In the year before the 2006 census, 16.7% of Australians moved.

    I did download this figure by age – 17% of persons aged 1-14 moved in the year prior to the 2006 census, but that was all moves within Australia – it would be quite a bit of work to get the interstate number. The highest move rate was the 25-34 year olds, 30% of whom moved. 65-84 year olds were the most stable, 6.3% moving.

    Steve – I am not convinced that moving is such a big problem, certainly not big enough to risk 100% of kids getting lousy curriculum. A better solution would be to abolished state-based curricula, instead letting schools pick from among different curricula spread across all states. That would generate healthy competition while meaning that kids who move interstate would be able to go to a school teaching the same things.


  4. I agree that demographics are likely to be important (although how to reconcile with rising migration overseas?), but what about State economic performance? In the early ’90s, Victoria and South Australia were basket cases and I believe outward migration to NSW and Qld was high. In recent years, both Victoria and SA have performed much better, reducing the incentive or need to move to Sydney for work. Meanwhile, rising commodity prices since 1998 have allowed Western Australians to stay put whereas in the past many would have moved to Sydney for greater opportunities. At the same time, many people would consider a move to Perth merely for extra pay to be a major and non-traditional step.


  5. Rajat – I think more globalised labour markets increasing job opportunities, especially for professionals and managers, might help explain increased out-migration. Two-thirds of those with an occupation leaving permanently are managers or professionals, who make up one-third of the domestic workforce. Also the fact that such people can afford trips back plus improved and cheaper communication back home, lower the social/emotional costs of leaving.

    Reduced outmigration from states experiencing economic problems is I think a good hypothesis for explaining fewer interstate moves. However, I would expect economic prosperity to increase local movement, except perhaps that high property prices (and consequent increases in stamp duty) have kept it down.


  6. Thank you for this article and for the blog, Andrew. There are so very few sources of information, factually based, with transparent ( in terms of bias) and clear analysis that you are like an oasis in the desert of our media.


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