Most of the moves we make are within 5 km of our previous addresses, yet these short migrations are highly significant within individual lives. New research is looking at the links between residential mobility, life events and exchanges of social support within families.

By providing evidence about the links between residential mobility and exchanges of social support within social and kin networks, our work could inform planning and policy development decisions.

Jacqueline Scott

It was no coincidence that house price rises, increased housing transactions and a surge in employment within the property industry were seen as signs of an upturn in the economy late last summer. One in four new jobs created in the previous 12 months, it emerged from data produced by the Office for National Statistics, were in the housing sector. Our homes are more than our castles: they are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the economy.

Behind the jibes branding Britain as a nation of estate agents is a highly significant fact. On average, more than half of the moves we make in our lifetimes are within roughly 5 km of our previous addresses. The term migration conjures up an image of large distances – crossing national boundaries or even continents – but the moves we undertake most frequently are much more local and are often motivated by the desire to make what might be seen as relatively minor adjustments to how we live.

At first glance there is nothing remarkable about moving just a few streets or to accommodation with three bedrooms rather than two – or to downsize from a house to an apartment. But the importance of this internal mobility should not, however, be underestimated, either in terms of what these moves mean to the people involved or how they contribute to the bigger picture of local and regional economies.

These aspects of internal migration – and others – are of great interest to Professor Jacqueline Scott and Dr Rory Coulter from the Department of Sociology. Together they are collaborating on research that explores the links between residential mobility (or immobility), life events and household changes, and exchanges of social support within families.

In the early 1990s Scott was responsible for the initial design and implementation of the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) – a hugely important resource for the study of changing family and household structures that was begun while she was at the University of Essex. Her research interests include inter-generational relations and shifting gender roles. Coulter, whose PhD focused on the links between moving desires and subsequent moving behaviour, describes his key interest as “the interactions between people and places – how people shape places, and conversely how places shape people”.

Their research into internal migration aims to get to the heart of why we move, when we move, and what those moves mean in terms of the small but vitally important details of our lives. Where we live, and how close (or distant) we are to the people and places most significant in our day-to-day lives, play a huge part in our well-being. A move closer to the station, to the catchment area of a particular school or to a preferred neighbourhood, for instance, may have important personal implications for opportunities for work, education and friendships. When taken with the moves made by others, this has wider implications for the provision of transport, schools and other businesses, services and facilities.

Data extrapolated from BHPS (1991–2008) and its successor survey, Understanding Society, which is run from the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and funded primarily by the Economic and Social Research Council, can give us the much-needed human angle on internal migration. We know, for example, that moves peak early in young adulthood (18–30), and that the frequency of moving declines rapidly after age 35. We know too that changing family trajectories impact on household size and thus on housing demand. But much more remains to be discovered about the finer details of decision-making surrounding internal migration.

As Coulter explained: “Data from panel surveys like BHPS are an incredibly rich resource for studying residential mobility. For example, using BHPS we are able to model exactly when people move home. We can estimate how having a baby affects how likely a couple are to move, as well as the type of dwelling and neighbourhood they choose to move to.

“By enabling us to model the timing of job changes and residential moves, BHPS data also allow us to study how people use residential mobility to co-ordinate their work and family life. In addition, because many panel surveys like BHPS interview every member of selected households, we are able to get multiple people’s perspectives on each relocation event. This allows us to explore which partner’s preferences have the strongest effects on a couple’s moving behaviour, as well as how moves affect the social networks of adults and their children”.Scott is particularly interested in the relationship between residential mobility – or immobility – and family support networks.  This includes looking at how gender affects household moving decisions and who benefits and gains most when a household makes (or does not make) a residential move.

The past 30 years or so have seen families disperse across greater distances as a result of employment change (for example, the decline of traditional industries and the growth of service sector employment) and the expansion of higher education. However, falling levels of state support combined with the demands of an aging population and political aspirations to increase female employment mean that support from family remains a vital aspect of well-being for many people.

“Given that informal networks for supplying and receiving many forms of support (such as childcare from family members) require people to live nearby to each other, it’s surprising that relatively little is known about how support exchanges may influence and be configured by residential mobility behaviour in conjunction with changes in family structures,” said Scott.

One example might be the decisions that underlie elderly people moving to be closer to their children or, conversely, children moving to be closer to their elderly parents. Another might be to investigate how residential moves are prompted by other life events such as childbirth or union dissolution (divorce or relationship break-up).

“We hope that our work will throw light on the question of how residential mobility is linked to family transitions and the changing supply and receipt of social support over the course of people’s lives. The answer to this complex question is likely to be correspondingly complex. To tackle it we will draw on the rich longitudinal data collected by surveys such as BHPS over the last two decades,” said Scott.

“By providing evidence about the links between residential mobility and exchanges of social support within social and kin networks, we anticipate that our work could inform the planning and policy development decisions of a range of government bodies and non-governmental organisations.”

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