most academics move far away from home; most americans don’t

I had the pleasure of meeting up with Beth Berman today “IRL” (as the kids liked to say, circa 2000). Among other things, we talked about various conversations in economics and sociology about why people do or don’t “move to opportunity.” That is, if incomes and quality of life are seemingly higher in big, productive cities like NYC, why doesn’t everyone move there? One obvious and important answer is family ties, which provide both emotional and material support. Academics know this, but we don’t live it.

A 2015 NYT Upshot piece presents some relevant data. It notes that:

The most-cited reason for living near home is the tug of family ties, while the most-cited reason for leaving is job opportunities, according to a Pew Research Center survey. It found that with the exception of college or military service, 37 percent of Americans had never lived outside their hometown, and 57 percent had never lived outside their home state.

And the headline finding is that:

Over all, the median distance Americans live from their mother is 18 miles, and only 20 percent live more than a couple of hours’ drive from their parents.

So, most Americans live close to home. Academics, in contrast, have almost always chosen at multiple points in their lives to move away from those ties. Most Academics attend elite undergrad institutions, often located far from family. Academics then often take a job in a big city before heading to graduate school in a third location, and finally a job in a fourth location (if not more, depending on the vagaries of the job market, post-docs, etc.).

While I don’t have data, I would wager that the modal academic at a research university has lived in at least three different places far from family, including their current residence. In other words, academics, especially those most engaged in research, by virtue of the steps needed to succeed on that career path, almost all live unusually far from family. Academia selects for willingness and ability to leave family behind. And so almost no one studying questions of residential mobility has chosen not to move, even as Americans on average are decreasingly choosing to move away.

Part of why this is so striking for me is that, by happenstance, my first long move away from home was when I took my current job at Brown. I grew up in SE Michigan, less than an hour from Ann Arbor, where I attended both undergrad and grad school. When I started grad school in my early 20s I knew I was setting myself on a path that would lead away from family, but I didn’t actually pay that price for almost another decade. My peers, in contrast, had almost all left family behind, often multiple times. The most fortunate managed to bring family along, encouraging a young retired parent to move nearby to help with childcare, for example. But for most, becoming an academic went along with accepting the fact that you would not live near family.

There are many kinds of people academia selects for and against, and the systematic ways in which it selects can affect the kind of knowledge produced. How is our understanding of families and residential mobility/internal migration shaped by the selection filter that keeps those who stayed from becoming successful academics in the first place?

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

2 thoughts on “most academics move far away from home; most americans don’t”

  1. Two quick reactions to this excellent point —
    One is that the median of 18 miles from mom seems to be based on this survey of older Americans?
    I don’t know anything about this data, but it makes me want to look more closely before accepting that number.

    The other, more interesting — in our conversation I made vague allusions to an older Claude Fischer paper on declining residential mobility ( Interestingly, looking back at it, the whole paper is framed as “people argue that residential mobility is causing social problems, but look! we’re not as mobile as we used to be”. Which is such a different framing from the Chetty et al. of “why on earth aren’t people moving to where they should be?” Both make sense; both obviously reflect a whole different set of background assumptions about what factors matter in explaining/understanding social change.


  2. I’ve had this thought for years. A lot of social scientists exoticize those strange people who actually value family over work. We are the ones with the skewed values. Raising my children apart from their grandparents has been the great grief of my life.


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