Holiday travel currents show demographic shifts

By Tom Baxter

We’ve come to the end of that season when Hartsfield-Jackson is its most frenetic, as a multitude of travelers head to wherever they call home, for whatever holidays they celebrate. As the New York Times documented in a recent story based on its analysis of census data, the currents of that annual migration have changed.

In the past, going “home for the holidays” has most often meant a trip back South to one’s state of origin, by people who had found jobs in the Northeast, the Midwest or the West. As cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville have grown, the prevailing holiday current has changed. Now there are more adopted Southerners heading back to their family homes in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West.

In 1980, 69 percent of all the people born in Georgia still lived here, compared to 80 percent of the people born in California who still lived in their home state. By 2012, the two states were tied at 75 percent. Georgia’s retention rate ranks fourth in the country.

In most cases, people leave their state of origin because there are economic opportunities elsewhere they can’t find at home. These census numbers don’t reflect Georgia’s high unemployment rate since 2012, but they show the impact of decades of job growth in the Southeast.

The demographic numbers reflect important shifts within the region as well. Until the mid-1990s, the state which accounted for the largest number of newcomers to Georgia was Alabama. It has since been overtaken by Florida and New York. Much of Georgia’s improvement in retention is due to the exchange with its immediate neighbors. In 1960, 9 percent of native-born Georgians lived in Florida. By 2012 that number was down to 5 percent.

Until the mid-1970s, following the very last heaves of the old industrial belt, Tennessee sent more of its native-born to Michigan than any other state. Today more native-born Tennesseans live in Georgia, followed by Texas and then Michigan.

There are, of course, a lot of holiday trails. I have friends and family who have made a number of variations. One who comes to mind spent most of his career in the Midwest and California, where he retired. Looking for a less expensive lifestyle he moved back South, thought better of it, and is back in California. Every fall he makes an extended, football-centered, Southern tour.

Another recently relocated to his home state of Ohio after more than two decades in the South. The cold is an adjustment, but he’s found the prices are much cheaper. And with a son still living in the Atlanta area, he has a reason to visit his adopted, now former home.

People don’t always go back to the place of their birth, and as the world gets more complicated we’ll likely find the holiday travel patterns following suit. This year’s surge of adopted Southerners, returning to Chicago, Boston or Phoenix for the holidays reflects a mobile economy that can change quickly as opportunities emerge in new places.

The biggest change in the makeup of adopted Georgians in the past few decades has been among those who might have to travel much further than Los Angeles to make it home for the holidays. In 1980 2 percent of people then living in the state came from outside the United States; today that number is 11 percent. That’s as many as all the newcomers from the other Southern states, excepting Florida.

One of the striking things that emerges when you put together these state-by-state diasporas over time is that the age of newcomers to the South seems to be tilting upward, perhaps reflecting not only sun and low tax-seeking retirees, but professionals coming here in late-career moves. How these newcomers relate to those from outside the United States is one of several interesting questions posed by these always-shifting patterns.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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