The Coronavirus and the Coming Exodus from Cities
Ever see a drunk man climb and bounce upon a traffic light as if he were riding a mechanical bull? I have. It was one of the many crazy memories from the crowds that poured into the streets to celebrate the Boston Red Sox defeating the 86-year curse. This wasn't just a curse of a sports team. It was a curse that had plagued the very souls of the people of the city.
The feeling of being part of the crowd was electrifying. All that pent up energy was released in intoxicated screams and howls amidst the nighttime skyline. Of course, mob mentality also crept in. And so did the destruction of some cars that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Riot police eventually came in to block and disperse the crowd. I took a queue early on and got the hell out of Kenmore Square long before I got a baton to the face. A few people I knew were not so lucky. Some were arrested for disturbing the peace.
Of course, there are many other benefits of the city that are far more beautiful and less detrimental to its citizens. The concerts. The parks. The skyscrapers. The people. Businesses. Universities. Culture. There was all of this in Boston. Growing up in a rural town in upstate NY, I found everything I ever wanted in Boston and never thought I would leave.
Annnnnd the Crash
The financial crash of 2008 couldn't have come at a worse time. I had just met the love of my life, who came out to live with me. I'll spare you the details, but with 100+ applicants per job, the prospects of finding a career were slim to none. I was also finishing off my Ph.D. with the hopes of landing a 6-figure job. However, even big-name companies removed their job postings just as I was about to apply (regardless of the pedigree of the diploma).
While we both loved Boston, the rising costs and non-existent income prospects forced us to look for a different place to make a home. Emily's parents lived in Colorado, so we made a decision to go there. And in 3 weeks, we were there. Longmont was no Boston, but it did have most of the advantages of living near a big city like Denver while having enough space to enjoy nature and grow a family.
Annnnnd the Pandemic… Annnnnd Riots
"There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." ― Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
2020 has been surreal on so many levels, but the ones I want to focus on are the ones that have the potential to cause massive de-urbanization.
I loved living in Boston because of all the advantages of city life: sports stadiums, bars, restaurants, public transportation, the arts, the people, the crowds, etc. But in a post-pandemic world, most of those advantages go away. In fact, they become the disadvantages of living in a city. They become more of a burden than a benefit.
To add gas to the fire, the lockdowns forced companies to try out full work-from-home policies. Shockingly, many companies discovered this can work out even better than requiring their entire team to live in expensive cities and commute god-awful distances. This resulted in many companies committing to remote-only or remote-first policies, which will no longer require 20-year olds to rent spaces on bunk beds just to afford to live in San Francisco.
Where, What, and When?
What will happen? It's difficult to say with 100% certainty. But there already was a pent up demand from tech workers to work remotely. That bubble has now burst, and people are leaving San Francisco in notable amounts. An example: there was a 9.2% month-over-month drop in rent). That's a big damn deal. And anecdotal evidence is showing a spillover into smaller cities. The crash in the stock market should have crashed housing prices, but the demand for houses in/around smaller cities has gone up.
My prediction (although anything can happen) is that the spillover will cascade down.
- Large cities => smaller cities
- Smaller cities => city suburbs
- City suburbs => small towns
- Small towns => rural
This is de-urbanization. With more and more people able to work online and with cities no longer having the same advantages, people will seek quality-of-life improvements elsewhere.
The only thing to stop the trend would be an immediate end of the pandemic and a belief that it wouldn't happen again. But given how strongly the media and politicians are amplifying the fear on top of the actual data (which is still bad, but nowhere close to the dire predictions), I don't see that happening where it matters the most: the big cities.
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About Rick Manelius
Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.