Upward Mobility – What Happened?
I’ve written before about the generational differences in the United States regarding upward mobility and relocation for career advancement. In the past Baby Boomers and their parents were routinely willing to uproot their families in order to advance their socioeconomic status. That is less likely to be the case with subsequent generations who are more interested in “work-life balance” and “working to live rather than living to work.” Of course, this in inherently tied to rising standards of living in the U.S. over the years and workers having enough resources to meet their needs. It’s fair to assume that the Oakies of the 1930’s Dust Bowl didn’t talk much about work-life balance.
This trend has given the shrinking pool of job candidates who are “upwardly mobile” a distinct advantage in the labor market versus those workers who can’t or won’t move. While it’s true there will always be a “home field” advantage for local candidates to fill local jobs, the relatively low number of out-of-town candidates for any given job means that relocating workers are now in a stronger competitive position than they were 20+ years ago.
So that’s good news for mobile employees – but what about employers, and the larger economic impact of this trend? This recent story in the New York Times depicts a potential problem emerging in the U.S. work force related to employees staying put in their current jobs. As author Patricia Cohen writes, “In recent years economists have become increasingly worried that a slide in job turnover and relocation rates is undermining the economy’s dynamism, dampening productivity and wages while making it more difficult for sidelined workers to find their way back into the labor force.”
Generalized fear of change also affects the issue. The University of Michigan’s Betsy Stevenson, a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisor’s, noted that “there is a possibility that people stay in jobs that aren’t as good for them because they’re terrified of changing, and that’s bad for the overall economy.” This means that skill jobs are being performed by less qualified, less productive workers, and the lack of job changes and relocations suppresses promotions and pay raises, further dampening the economy.
The problem is particularly acute in metropolitan areas in the U.S. where high-growth industries, including Biotech Med Tech and High Tech, have become concentrated, regions like the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and West Coast. The need for skilled workers in those areas has driven up wages and cost of living rates, making it more difficult for out-of-towners to be willing to move there since the wage inflation doesn’t keep up with the increase in housing costs. That limits the injection of “new blood” and new thinking in those areas and creates a perpetual game of musical chairs among existing workers who already reside in any given expensive city.
Into that void has stepped a highly mobile, highly educated class of immigrants from places like Europe, China and India. Having already moved half-way around the world to seek great career opportunities, they are far more likely to consider further relocation within the U.S. as compared to their native counterparts. If economists and elected officials are concerned about this void in the labor market they would support policies that enhance more immigration of skilled workers rather than less of it.
This trend has created lasting impacts on the cultures of U.S. companies – they are changing in ways we’ve never seen before. We all know that change is constant and inevitable, and those individuals and organizations who embrace it and lead the way will be far better positioned for success in the new economy.