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The Road Less (and Less) Travelled

When deciding to move, men’s careers are still prioritised, but dual-income households are less likely to go

The decision to pick up and move is a complex one. Migrating involves both direct costs — the move itself — and indirect, opportunity costs, or the foregone benefits of staying put. Moving a household exacerbates this complexity. A new study by Sergi Vidal, Francisco Perales, Philipp M. Lersch and Maria Brandén confirms that this is especially true for dual-earner couples, couples in which both members work outside the home. In principle, this means expanding female labour force participation and shrinking earnings gaps could restrict family moves in the future. The authors, however, also show that policy will have a role to play.

Gender has always influenced family migration. Traditionally, men’s careers have weighed heavier in family decisions to move, not least because traditionally men were the principal earners. Considering the growth of women’s workforce participation, Vidal, Perales, Lersch and Brandén sought to determine the extent to which this was still the case.

They compared long-distance family relocations within the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Sweden. Everywhere, they found the migration rates of dual-earner couples to be lower than those of male-breadwinner couples. This was to be expected. But the study also confirms that across the board, men’s careers continue to be prioritised in these decisions, at least where traditional male-breadwinner homes continue to be systematically supported by policy and dominant values.

For instance, in Germany — one such country — when men have managerial or professional positions, it would appear that their careers are prioritized in migration decisions even when their partners have one such position. In both the United Kingdom and Australia, female-breadwinner households showed higher than average migration rates. According to the authors, this can be explained by higher employment opportunities for male partners — meaning that even in female-breadwinner homes, men’s employment prospects are considered in, or even behind, the decision to go.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, where female labour force participation is highest and gender-egalitarian values are strongest, male- and female-breadwinner households relocated at the same rate, and the presence of children was not a determining factor in couples’ gender balance. And nowhere were dual-earner couples less likely to pack up and go.