Unemployed in Massachusetts, Michel Raguin is an ideal prospect for a job in the Sun Belt. But he has turned away the inquiries of a Texas headhunter and paged past newspaper ads seeking someone with just his credentials in California.
Ten months after losing his job as a computer hardware designer, Raguin is determined to stay close to home, in large part because he is unconvinced a move across the country would shelter him from economic misfortune. He fears the recession that prompted massive layoffs at his employer of 22 years could be around the corner for other parts of the country as well.
"I could move. . . . They have work to do in California," said Raguin. "But I'm not sure that six months from now they may not have a recession comparable to the one in New England now."
Demographers, sociologists and economists predict that many Americans like Raguin, who are squeezed out of work by the current economic downturn, will fight an instinct to seek greener pastures and try to wait out a recession at home.
These experts dismiss the common wisdom -- built on stories of the Oklahoma-to-California migration of the Great Depression and the Detroit-to-Dallas stream a decade ago -- that during an economic downturn many Americans will move, sometimes great distances, in search of jobs. They argue that not only is the common wisdom exaggerated, the absence of dramatic regional disparities in today's economy gives people little incentive to move across the country to follow the promise of prosperity.
There are other long-term factors at work as well. As a nation, Americans move less than they did in the past, a product of broad social change over the past 20 years such as the increase in two-income families and the aging of the baby boomers.
"The rate of moving is down," said Larry Long, a demographer at the Census Bureau. "And I don't see anything that would reverse that long-term trend."
National migration rates -- the percentage of Americans reporting an interstate move during the previous year -- has dropped from 3.4 percent in 1970-71 to 2.7 percent in 1987-88, according to the Census Bureau.
Unlike the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Sun Belt oil communities were booming at the same time northern industrial cities were suffering a painful hit, economists say the '90s could be a decade without strong regional magnets.
"When regions are growing more near in performance, then you don't see as much migration between regions," said Diane Swonk, regional economist at the First National Bank of Chicago. "It's not going to be that much better to uproot my family and move to the next state when they only have a few jobs."
"You're not going to have the go-go markets," said Donald Walls, senior vice president and research director at DRI/McGraw-Hill, an economic forecasting firm.
Walls said his company estimates that during this decade net migration -- an index that measures movement between regions -- will be half of what it was in the 1980s. The migration is also likely to be distributed more evenly across the country, he said.
"The reason is that the economic differentials between the fastest growing parts of the country and the slowest growing are narrowing," Walls said.
Another factor that caused Americans to be on the move more in the last decade was that members of the baby boom generation were in their most mobile years. "The '80s was, to some extent, a unique time," said Paul Voss, professor of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin.
The coincidence of job growth in the Sun Belt and unemployment in the industrial Midwest came "at a time of tremendous pressure for mobility because of all the young people," Voss said. "That put migration numbers at a level we probably won't see repeated."
Despite the draw to regional hot spots in the past, Americans as a whole have always been just as likely to move during prosperous times as they are during a recession. In the recession of 1981-82, for example, migration rates were 2.8 percent, the same rate as 1986-87. Gradually, however, those rates have begun to slow.
The increase in two-earner couples, for example, makes it harder for families to relocate. If one partner is employed, the other cannot easily consider a move elsewhere. If the couple decides to move, it means looking for two jobs instead of one.
The decline in the economic status of Americans in their 20s has kept them closer to home than their predecessors, meaning fewer moves away for jobs and fewer moves back when the economy turns sour.
Also, corporate relocations have declined in response to economic and social pressures.
Together, these factors have changed the patterns of American mobility. If the migration rate that prevailed during the 1960s had continued, Long said, the number of Americans reporting interstate moves in 1989 would have been closer to 8.1 million rather than 7.1 million.
It will take years for the Census Bureau to calculate the precise number who moved during the economic downturn this year, but some early signals bear out predictions that this is not a time of great mobility.
"We're not seeing a spike in the economically driven long-distance moves," said a spokesman for Ryder Truck Rental, whose records on residential moves are viewed by demographers as a relatively accurate picture of migration.
Raguin, 50, was laid off in March, after two decades designing central processor units for a division of Honeywell, which is now owned by Groupe Bull. His decision to look for a job close to home also reflects the changing social picture described by demographers.
His wife, Virginia, is a tenured art history professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. The couple is reluctant to give up her career and income for an uncertain job across the country.
"We're hoping that the situation will get better after a while," he said.
John Homan, an unemployed financial manager in Fairfax, has also been job-hunting for 10 months. When Homan and his wife, Patricia, chose to leave Chicago to move closer to her family, she landed a good job here as a technical writer. But her husband found himself competing in a tight field and a depressed local economy.
Homan, 33, who worked most recently at Metropolitan Life and Financial Services in Chicago, knows there are jobs in California for someone with his credentials, an MBA from Columbia University and 10 years of experience. But he says he is not going to move.
"My wife's attitude is this: We're not going to move anywhere for any company in the era of mergers and acquisitions. There just isn't any security," Homan said. "We're making the decision. We like it here. This is where our family is. It's great for our daughter. We will endure and survive."
That assessment was supported by the Federal Reserve Board's monthly survey of business conditions, released last week, that showed the economic downturn in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states is moving west. While the report revealed pockets of strength, it also indicated that previously growing economies around Atlanta, Chicago and St. Louis had turned downward.
Demographers argue that recessions have never spurred large-scale migration. Instead, the movement prompted by economic dips and spikes is usually confined to regional hot and cold spots, which was the case when thousands of Michigan residents flocked to Texas during the early 1980s.
According to tax returns analyzed by the Internal Revenue Service, more than 36,400 Michigan residents moved to Texas in 1981-82. That number has fallen steadily since, dropping to about 7,600 in 1987-88. But even the years of peak movement from the Midwest did not affect national migration rates.
Like Raguin and Homan, Charles Miller is confident his skills as a telecommunications manager would be marketable around the country. But he too is resisting a move.
Miller, 42, was laid off from United Press International in October. He and his wife, Nancy, had just purchased a townhouse in Fairfax. They have relatives here, and Nancy Miller works part time. They like the Fairfax County public school system their 7-year-old daughter attends.
"We've found a home and, by God, we're going to stay there," he said.