Have millennials given up on big cities?

Remote work plus the high cost of metro areas are driving some young families out.

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Key takeaways

  • The rise of remote work has lured some young people to reconsider whether living near desirable metro areas is still worth the cost.
  • Major cities were already experiencing net population outflows before 2020, but the pandemic accelerated the trend.
  • Some small-town communities will even pay remote workers to move there (after an application process).

Before COVID, Marc Bollinger, 39, was living a life of millennial tech workers' dreams: Each weekday, he commuted by train from his home in El Cerrito, California, to the Twitter building in San Francisco, where he managed teams of engineers for Thumbtack—an app that connects homeowners with contractors, landscapers, and more. A full kitchen staff catered to employees, and he could spend entire days brainstorming with his team around a large communal table.

Then in mid-March 2020, the office abruptly shut down and work went fully remote. "I left on a Friday, and by Tuesday our badges didn't open the doors anymore," he says.

As the pandemic dragged on, Bollinger and his wife, Emily, a buyer for Peet's Coffee, realized they might be working from home indefinitely. So the couple began considering a move back to the East Coast, where they’d both grown up. Moving could bring them and their 4-year-old closer to family. And since they were working remotely anyway, they could keep their jobs (and Bay Area-level salaries).

So in June of 2021, they made the leap—moving to Easton, Pennsylvania, a small city near Allentown in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Marc had attended grad school at nearby Lehigh University, so they already knew the area. And with his parents just a short drive away, they liked the prospects of impromptu family visits (and occasional free childcare).

Farewell, city living

As many as 45% of Americans may have moved during the pandemic, according to polls, with a majority of the movers being from younger generations.1

But the trend of flight from the priciest metro areas didn't begin with COVID—it had been gaining steam long before any of us knew the difference between PPE and PCR. Major high-cost metro areas had already been experiencing net out-migration (meaning, more people moved out of those areas than moved in, domestically) for more than a decade pre-COVID.2

Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the most sought-after metro areas also experienced astronomical home-price increases in that period—keeping ownership ever out-of-reach for some young first-time buyers. San Francisco home prices increased some 95% in the decade pre-COVID,3 while Los Angeles prices were up 69%,4 and Boston prices shot up 47%.5

Then the pandemic hit, and that trickle of urban emigrants turned into, if not a torrent, at least a steady stream. The net number of people moving from high-cost metro areas to small metros, towns, and rural areas more than doubled—from a monthly pace of less than 10,000 net migrants at the start of 2020, to more than 20,000 per month by 2021.2

Early in the pandemic, people leaving cities were motivated mainly by fear of infection.6 But as it dragged on, their rationale returned to economics. By November 2020, financial considerations were the number-one reason urban expats gave for fleeing cities.6 After all, with remote work becoming the new normal, people like the Bollingers could suddenly earn Silicon Valley salaries and pay Lehigh Valley rent.

Some surprising areas have turned out to be the main beneficiaries. Fort Myers, Florida, Stockton, California, and Allentown, Pennsylvania (near the Bollingers' new town), have seen the biggest net inflows of urban expats (when measured as a percent of each town's workforce).7

And the metro area with the greatest recent home-price increases? Boise City, Idaho.8

The ups and downs of expat life

Of course, while a big move may make sense for some workers, that's not to say it's without tradeoffs.

Many employers are requiring a return to the office—while others have said that employees may continue to work remotely indefinitely, but they may face a pay cut if they do so. Moving to a new state can also come with state-tax headaches and potentially licensing considerations, depending on your industry. And the restaurants in Lehigh Valley may not compare to the restaurants in the Bay Area.

As for the Bollingers, since relocating they've found a slower-paced, lower-cost lifestyle that suits them—even if it's taken some adjusting.

In El Cerrito, the mortgage on Bollinger's 3-bedroom house cost around $4,200 per month. In Easton, the family now pays $2,800 monthly to rent a 4-bedroom home within walking distance of a brew pub, a barber shop, and an ice cream parlor.

Marc says the move has been positive on the whole. But he sometimes misses working in the office. And he doesn't rule out a return to big-city life if his company opens part-time offices in New York—something it's considering as its workforce continues to expand geographically.

"I do think about maybe moving somewhere that I could commute in once or twice a week," Bollinger says. "But I wouldn't do it again 5 days a week. I was willing to do it at the time, but in hindsight? No thanks."

Cities that say they'll pay you to move there

Even before the pandemic, some smaller cities and towns were offering incentives to encourage remote workers to check them out. These programs can be competitive to apply to, and many have income requirements. But for those chosen, they can provide a solid chunk of cash and other perks. Here are some of the most generous programs around the country:

  • Ascend, West Virginia: This program offers up to $12,000 in cash for full-time remote workers who relocate to West Virginia.9 The program focuses on a different town in the state each year. Besides the cash, participants also receive a full year of free outdoor gear rentals.
  • Northwest Arkansas: Supported by the Walton Family Foundation (funded by the founders of locally based Walmart), this initiative offers participants $10,000 to move within a 2-county region nestled in the Ozark Mountains.10 It also provides either a bicycle or a membership to a local cultural institution.
  • The Shoals, Alabama: Located in northwestern Alabama, The Shoals is made up of a few small cities nestled between Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis. This program offers a $10,000 incentive for remote workers who relocate.11 
  • Topeka, Kansas: Topeka's program offers remote workers up to $10,000 to help them buy a home in the area.12 And Jimmy John's sandwiches will throw in another $1,000 (along with its trademark "Free Smells") for those who move within one of its local delivery zones.

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