In this paper we characterize and interpret patterns of labor migration in Taiwan, including (1) lifetime labor migration up to 1990 and (2) 1985–90 labor migration, based on the data of the 1990 Census. To gain better insights, the 1985–90 migrations are decomposed into three types: primary, return, and onward. Our major findings are as follows. First, lifetime labor migration was highly efficient in transferring labor into North Region from all other regions of Taiwan and contributed to Taiwan's transformation into one of the newly industrialized economies. Second, the 1985–90 labor migration in Taiwan responded quickly to the spatially unbalanced impacts of economic restructuring and globalization in the 1980s and resulted in a major turnaround in population redistribution: a shift from a long-lasting dual-pole (north–south) concentration pattern developed since the 1930s toward a single-pole concentration pattern in the north. Third, primary migration was much more voluminous than return and onward migrations, and rural prefectures had the typical pattern of a ‘loser’: a large net loss of primary migrants, countered by a small net gain of return migrants, and somewhat aggravated by a small net loss of onward migrants. Fourth, the greatest beneficiaries in terms of educational selectivity were Taipei city (the command center of the globalized Taiwanese economic system) and Hsinchu city (the so-called silicon valley of Taiwan). Fifth, the losses in the quantity and quality of human resources due to migration did not result in socioeconomic decline in rural prefectures because these losses were compensated for largely by the rural-ward financial transfer of central government and partly by the remittances sent back by rural out-migrants.