Their lives on hold for years, young adults are now making big moves in the fledgling economic recovery, leaving college towns or their parents' homes and heading out of state at the highest rate since the height of the housing boom.
New census data released Thursday offer a detailed look at U.S. migration as mobility begins to revive after sliding to a record low last year.
The latest numbers show that young adults ages 25 to 29 are the primary out-of-state movers; they had the biggest gain in 13 years as they struck out on their own to test the job market in urban, high-tech meccas such as Washington, D.C.; Denver; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Austin, Texas.
In contrast, groups that showed some of the most movement in the housing boom of the past decade (2000 to 2010) – working professionals, families and would-be retirees – are still mostly locked in place, their out-of-state migration levels stuck at near lows because of underwater mortgages and shrunken retirement portfolios.
The demographic shifts, which analysts say could continue for many more years, are once again rejiggering the housing map.
Out are the supersized McMansions in far-flung suburbs and the sprawling Southwest, which helped drive rapid metro-area growth in the early to middle part of the past decade in places such as Phoenix; Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; and Atlanta. In are new, 300- square-foot "micro" apartments under consideration for wider development in dense cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle, which are seeking to attract young single adults who value affordable spaces in prime locations to call their own.
"Footloose young singles are forming the leading edge of the coming migration wave," said William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who reviewed the numbers. He attributed the recent jump in mobility to pent-up demand among young adults who now are ready to "move on a dime" to land a job opportunity.
"We will see their migration rates swell even higher if the jobs become more plentiful," Mr. Frey said. "Families, older professionals and retirees will be latecomers; they have more financial baggage and will need to make more careful decisions about when and where to move."
Richard Florida, an American urban theorist and professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, called the mobility gain an important sign the U.S. economy is getting back on track.
"Young people are moving out of their parents' basements and sampling places and sampling careers again," he said. "After living at home for a while, young people have kind of maxed it out. They are heading to bigger, vibrant cities, predominantly, because they're looking for economic opportunity and building their social networks."
About 1.7 percent of the U.S. population moved across state lines to a new home in the 12-months ending in March, up slightly from 1.6 percent in the previous year.
The share of young adults ages 25 to 29 who moved to a new state was higher, about 3.8 percent. That's up from 3.4 percent in the previous year and the highest level since the height of the housing boom in 2005, when mobility was 5 percent. The 0.4 percentage point increase in 2012 is also the biggest jump for young adults since 1999, when the rapid rise of Internet startups and the need for young workers during the dot-com bubble drove migration.
Moving rates for college graduates of all ages remained mostly flat at 2 percent.