Social justice

Geographical mobility : not all created equal!

Photo par lordn sur Adobe Stock

Photo par lordn sur Adobe Stock

What are the determinants of mobility in the labour market? Are some professions more mobile than others? Researchers Benoît Schmutz, Modibo Sidibé and Élie Vidal-Naquet reveal ways of influencing worker mobility in order to vitalise the labour market.

By Elie Vidal-Naquet

Elie Vidal-Naquet

auteur scientifique, Aix-Marseille Université, Faculté d'économie et de gestion

Juliette Mita

Juliette Mita

Journaliste Scientifique

While the unemployment rate is at its lowest level in France for 15 years (7.2% in the fourth quarter of 2022), there are significant territorial disparities in the labour market. Some regions are seeing an increase in the number of job vacancies, while others are still facing high unemployment.

In theory, the cause of this paradoxical situation lies in the low mobility of French workers. Mobility refers to the ability of an individual to leave one geographical area for another in order to access a new job. It thus appears to be an essential adjustment factor in the labour market insofar as it enables the supply of jobs to be adapted to the demand for them, and thus reduces disparities between territories.

In a study published in 2021, economic researchers Benoît Schmutz, Modibo Sidibé and Élie Vidal-Naquet sought to understand the causes of this low mobility in France, but above all to explain the differences in mobility between the various sectors of activity. What are the determinants of mobility in the labour market? Are some professions more mobile than others? Does the state have the means to act on worker mobility?

stuff in a removal box

Picture by Eric Isselée on Adobe Stock

Workers less mobile than managers

If an individual's ability to take advantage of remote job offers is one of the drivers of a successful career, it is clear that it varies greatly according to skills and sectors of activity. To illustrate this idea, the researchers focused on the 30 largest French cities and focused on two professional categories: managers, known as 'white-collar' workers, and labourers, known as 'blue-collar workers', who represented respectively 21.6% and 19.1% of the active population in 20211 .

These socio-professional categories are marked by strong divergences in the labour market: blue-collar workers are twice as affected by unemployment as managers (15.6% as opposed to 7.5%) and their salaries are 2.3 times lower. This observation suggests that blue-collar workers, being more affected by unemployment, would be the most mobile, as they might be more inclined to move in order to get a job. However, the reality is quite different: blue-collar workers are almost three times less mobile than white-collar workers (0.29% per year compared to 0.8%)2 . This difference is even more marked among the unemployed, who are four times less mobile. Moreover, the greater the distance between their home and the job offered, the lower the mobility of blue-collar workers, which is not the case for managers.

How then can we explain these differences in mobility between occupations? Two parameters act as obstacles to migration in the labour market, and especially for blue-collar workers: mobility costs and spatial frictions.

  • 1Insee data, 2021, Socio-professional category by gender and age
  • 2Schmutz B., Sidibé M., Vidal-Naquet É., 2021, "Why Are Low-Skilled Workers Less Mobile? The Role of Mobility Costs and Spatial Frictions", Annals of Economics and Statistics, 142, 283‑304.

The cost of mobility

Leaving one's city or region for a job can be seen as an investment whose return depends on the costs incurred. These costs can be both material, such as the costs of moving, and psychological and social, such as the consequences of the change of environment.

The researchers reveal in their study that these mobility costs vary slightly between socio-professional categories: they amount to €14,938 for managers, compared to €14,635 for workers. However, this nominal value does not take into account the disparities between sectors of activity: as explained above, blue-collar workers have a much lower salary level than white-collar workers and are more likely to be unemployed. In doing so, the relative importance of mobility costs in relation to income reflects a significant difference between occupations: mobility costs are relatively three times higher for blue-collar workers than for managers.

In addition to this, there is a strong inequality in the housing market across sectors, which is associated with different housing costs. On the one hand, white-collar workers are more likely to be homeowners, which leads to high relocation costs. On the other hand, blue-collar workers are more likely to live in public housing, where the allocation process can be long and cumbersome. In 2011, Benoît Schmutz showed that the existence of discrimination against immigrants of African origin in the private rental market and their over-representation in social housing, particularly in the poorest neighbourhoods, partly explains the higher unemployment affecting this population3 .

  • 3Schmutz B.,2011, "Les immigrés Africains face au marché du logement en france : Ségrégation,discrimination et mobilité" These de doctorat, Aix-Marseille 2

The issue of spatial friction

In addition to these mobility costs, there are spatial frictions, which refer to the difficulty for workers to find out about job offers from a distance. In other words, a person living in Marseille will have more difficulty accessing job offers in Paris than a person living in the capital.

Once again, it is found that an individual's better or worse connection to other cities varies according to his or her occupation. The researchers show that spatial frictions are two to three times higher for blue-collar workers than for managers. In other words, white-collar workers are better connected to other cities than blue-collar workers, and they have more access to job offers from outside their region.

Already in 1973, Aba Schwartz highlighted the role of the level of education in the spatial matching of individuals. In particular, he showed that, thanks to their higher educational background, managers had more sophisticated means of accessing information and were therefore less affected by geographical distance in their job searches. Conversely, blue-collar workers rely more on an informal local network to find work, which leads them to favour job offers within their region.

personne devant des journaux annontant une petite annonce

Picture by Ron Lach on Pexels

How can mobility be improved?

Mobility costs and spatial frictions thus appear to be the two major obstacles to worker mobility, all the more so when their level of qualification is low. It is therefore possible to envisage a public policy that would act on these two factors to vitalise the mobility of workers.

Relocation assistance appears to be a means of erasing occupational disparities in mobility costs. To assess the impact of such a measure, the researchers calculated the mobility rate of blue-collar workers under the assumption that their relative costs would be equal to those of managers. The result of this policy is disappointing: while there is an increase in mobility after five years (+10%), it deteriorates over time, reaching a negative rate after 20 years. Moreover, this increase in mobility is to the detriment of the unemployed, who suffer from competition from more mobile employees. This type of support certainly improves the mobility of workers, but it also leads them to settle in cities that are less connected to others, and from which it will be more difficult for them to leave later on.

But what about a policy that seeks to alleviate spatial frictions? To reduce the mobility gap between occupations, governments could seek to equalise the connection of individuals to other cities, allowing blue-collar workers to access the same level of information on different labour markets as white-collar workers. Under these conditions, the effect on the mobility of blue-collar workers is very effective: their mobility increases by 10% after 5 years, by 25% after 10 years and by 51% after 20 years.

Acting on spatial frictions rather than on mobility costs therefore appears to be a more effective way of vitalising workers' mobility. One explanation for this is that mobility costs vary very little between cities, since the bulk of the cost is a fixed component, which is not the case for spatial frictions, which vary greatly between cities.

However, mobility is not an objective in itself. What is fundamentally important is whether or not a mobility policy can help to improve the performance of blue-collar workers on the labour market. However, both of the above policies have almost no impact on the level of unemployment, and even a negative effect in the long term. Mobility is therefore not a magic adjustment variable that would erase the disparities between the different labour markets.

This finding brings a new perspective on the consequences of mobility gaps between workers and managers. Indeed, it is an important contributor to the growing disparities between dynamic labour markets and those of former industrial regions in decline, such as the United States, where geographical mobility is greater.

Translated from French by

Translated from french by Cate Evans


Schmutz B., Sidibé M., Vidal-Naquet É., 2021, "Why Are Low-Skilled Workers Less Mobile? The Role of Mobility Costs and Spatial Frictions", Annals of Economics and Statistics, 142, 283‑304.