City-REDI publications series: Professor Anne Green – Understanding the drivers of internal migration

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As part of a new blog series, we will be highlighting the excellent research produced by the City-REDI team since 2015, with the aim of creating an online searchable library. You can view this work by searching the blog with the relevant tag, either using the name of the author or the year of the publication. The series continues with Professor Anne Green. 

Anne joined the University of Birmingham as Professor of Regional Economic Development in June 2017. Her research interests span employment, non-employment, regional and local labour market issues, skills strategies, urban and rural development, migration and commuting, associated policy issues and evaluation.

She has published in high-profile journals and has written numerous reports for UK Government Departments and agencies. Anne is experienced in disseminating the results of her research to academic, policy and practitioner audiences.

Understanding the drivers of internal migration – Anne Green

Chapter in Internal Migration In The Developed World: Are We Becoming Less Mobile? Edited by Tony Champion, Thomas Cooke and Ian Shuttleworth. Published by Routledge, 2017


Internal migration plays a key role in national well-being because of its effects on economic, social and demographic change. It can be a major factor in patterns of population and employment growth and decline within countries. It has been identified as fundamental to the efficient functioning of economies and housing markets, as well enabling individuals and families to achieve their goals and aspirations. This chapter draws on the existing literature to demonstrate the multiplicity of factors driving internal migration in its various forms and, in the context of this book’s central aim of achieving a better understanding of long-term trends in migration intensities, provides an a priori assessment of whether changes in these factors might be expected to lead to an increase or a decrease in frequency of address-changing. It does this by examining five main groups of drivers relating to: (1) changing demography, (2) macro-economic and labour market factors, (3) technological developments, (4) societal and non-economic considerations and (5) other markets, regulatory and institutional structures.

Trends in internal migration are a function of two broad sets of factors: compositional changes, defined in terms of the changing distribution of the population between sub-groups associated with higher and lower migration propensities, and behavioural changes, defined as trends over time in the level of residential mobility of individual population sub-groups. Compositional change and behavioural change may reinforce each other in leading to an increase or decrease in internal migration, but this is not necessarily the case: compositional change may lead to an expectation of increased internal migration but behaviour change might indicate a decrease in internal migration—possibly leading to an aggregate outcome of no change. In this chapter, an attempt is made to separate out the implications for these two broad sets of changes for mobility trends.

Five overarching trends emerge from reviewing the literature on the various forms of internal migration and their links with the socio-demographic, economic, political-institutional and technological contexts in which address-changing takes place: (1) a trend towards increasing heterogeneity within demographic and economic sub-groups; (2) increased fragmentation in demographic and economic spheres – exemplified by rising divorce rates and family break-up leading to fissuring in household structures, and work organisation trends such as short-term contracts and the technology-enabled separation of economic activities across local areas and national boundaries are indicative of fragmentation; (3) changes in the nature of social networks, as the growth in access to technology has extended the reach and penetration of networks; (4) the increasing complexity of migration decision-making; and (5) the relational nature of movement, such that rather than being a ‘one off’ event, individuals’ life courses and behaviours are linked to those around them in the broader time-space context of economic, social and cultural change. Taken together, these trends suggest that understanding how drivers of internal migration play out in practice is far from simple.

The aggregate picture of internal migration is the function of the interplay of short-term cyclical economic processes, medium-term restructuring and long-term shifts in socio-cultural and economic values. This is particularly evident in the case of occupational change where recent and projected trends would suggest increases in internal migration and circulation as a result of compositional effects. By contrast, behaviour change would indicate a decrease in internal migration. In part, this is linked to an increase in dual-earner/-career households, and an associated tendency towards substitution of commuting for migration. This latter point about occupational and household change highlights the intersecting nature of the various drivers of mobility, which in turn means that the aggregate impacts on mobilities cannot readily be determined. The challenges in understanding the drivers of internal migration are further compounded by the destandardisation of the life course, which has affected the timing, frequency and geography of moves and the relational nature of mobilities. In turn, these trends emphasise the complexity of migration decision-making and the importance of understanding not only what prompts mobility for movers but also the decisions (which are neither made unconsciously nor just once without renegotiation) surrounding immobility for stayers.

The assessment presented in this chapter supports the significance of factors such as population ageing, rising immigration, the increase in dual-earner/career households, greater geographical uniformity in the structure of employment and the growth in a desire for socio-spatial rootedness as explaining the decline in internal migration rates in the USA. Yet other factors—such as technological change—can enable both immobility and mobility, such that the aggregate outcome is less clear.

You can view the chapter here.

You can purchase the book here.

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