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By Mike Swift

RISMEDIA, Dec. 19, 2008-(MCT)-Increasingly middle-aged, dependent on two paychecks and worried about the economy, America is settling down like rarely before.

Just 13% of the U.S. population changed addresses between 2006 and 2007, the lowest share of Americans to move since the Census Bureau began keeping records on mobility after World War II.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center-conducted to analyze the trend-divides America into a nation of “movers” and “stayers.” According to the study released Wednesday, six-in-10 Americans have moved to a new community at least once in their lives, but more than a third of Americans still live in their hometowns, and 57% of Americans have never lived outside their home state.

But for movers, the survey finds, life is far different. After decades of lighting out for the territories, millions of Americans have been left with family and friends scattered across the states-tied together by long-distance phone lines and Facebook pages. Among people who have lived in two or more places in their life, nearly four in 10 say they aren’t living in their “heart home” now, Pew found.

“The idea of mobility, of being able to put down roots wherever you want, has been enshrined in American culture,” said D’Vera Cohn, co-author of the Pew study. “If you ask people who have moved where do they consider their true home, a fairly notable share will say it’s not the place where they are living. But they don’t necessarily want to go back.”

The Pew study said a number of long- and short-term factors are converging to crimp America’s mobility. One factor is the increase of two-career couples, who find it tougher to relocate their families to gainful new employment for both people. Another factor is the aging of the U.S. population-people under 30 are far more likely to move than older people.

Combined with the housing meltdown, those trends mean Americans are less likely to move than in earlier generations. Updated national Census numbers released this week show that the share of Americans moving slid further in 2008, to just 12% of Americans.

Even in Santa Clara County, where only 45% of the population was born in California in 2007-the lowest share in the state after San Francisco-fewer people are pulling up stakes. Census data shows the share of county residents who moved in the previous year declined from 18% in 2004 to about 15% in 2007.

“I think now people are sitting on what they have and playing it safe,” said Riki Lepori, of Champions Movers in San Jose, which has seen its volume of jobs cut in half over the past year. “If they are thinking about taking a chance right now, people are afraid to do it. It’s tough everywhere in the United States, not just here.”

Champions has cut prices and laid off staff, changes familiar in the national moving industry. Industry giant Atlas Van Lines announced this week it would cut salaries by 5% at its corporate headquarters, and other moving companies are branching into other lines of business. Some are doubling as courier services, and others are even putting snowplows on their trucks for local governments, said John Bisney of the American Moving & Storage Association.

To survive, “you have to be innovative,” he said.

Allied Van Lines, which has been seeing annual sales declines since 2004, doesn’t see things getting better until people can easily sell their houses.

“The housing market is a huge influence on our business,” said Steve McKenna, an Allied vice president.

While nearly half of adults in the Midwest still live in their hometowns, Pew found that the West is the least rooted part of the country, with just 30% of adults still kicking around their hometown. From the 1950s into the mid-1960s, more than 20% of Americans moved each year. The share of Americans changing addresses has been sliding since the mid-1980s.

A college degree is the primary factor that makes people “movers,” instead of “stayers.” College graduates move longer distances, move more frequently, and are more likely to move because of a job than people with just a high school diploma, Pew found. One reason is that college graduates have more employment options in the national job market, while they may have fewer options in their hometowns, especially in rural areas.

Cohn said she couldn’t help but notice how this year’s presidential candidates, whose lives stretched from Indonesia to the Great Plains and the Panama Canal Zone to Arizona, differed from the lifelong attachment of a Jefferson of Virginia, or a Kennedy of Massachusetts.

“Both presidential candidates were guys who had put down roots someplace after living in other places,” she said. “Maybe what’s happening is this presidential race mirrors what’s happened in the entire country.”

© 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.