Another anecdote-fueled tale predicting of urban decline

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig and Ben Eisen add another story, this one headlined “When workers can live anywhere” to the growing pile of claims that fear of Covid-19 and the possibility for remote work are likely to lead to the demise of cities.

“Still, coronavirus-spurred moving could accelerate a shift already under way from dense, expensive cities to more affordable areas, including small cities and suburbs.”

The story begins with the usual anecdote of a professional couple that’s now moving away from New York City. Caught in the lockdown in California in March, these New Yorkers—a tech professional and a restauranteur—decided not to go back, and instead will relocate to Sonoma (median home price $807,000).

As we’ve reported at City Observatory, despite such anecdotes, the data clearly show well-educated adults moving to close-in urban neighborhoods at an even faster rate than in the previous decade.  Every large metro in the US recorded an increase in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree living in its densest, most central neighborhoods since 2010, and the rate of growth has accelerated in four-fifths of these metro areas during that time.  Moreover, the latest data on search activity on real estate websites like Zillow and shows no decrease—and in fact, an increase—in the searches in cities compared to their suburbs.

You can always dredge up an anecdote or two to show someone moving from a large city to a smaller one. But the narrow slice of folks who decamp from New York City to say, Sonoma—in the heart of California’s tony wine country and proximate to San Francisco—is not any kind of indicator of an exodus from cities to rural areas, especially an exodus supposedly driven a thirst for cheap real estate.

The Journal article is better than most in acknowledging that there are actual limits to the feasibility of remote working for most workers.  They relate the example of one tech company:

Already some companies are rethinking their work-from-home experiments. Executives at Twilio Inc., a San Francisco-based tech company, in early May were leaning toward giving employees a one-time offer to move where they wanted and work remotely permanently, according to chief people officer Christy Lake. By the end of the month, the company had scaled back its approach, instead telling employees they could work from another city or state domestically through the end of the year, if they got approval from a manager.

So the much ballyhooed “anyone can work anywhere” policy lasted for a couple of weeks. And apparently has touched only a few employees. The Journal story goes on to disclose that just 15 of the firm’s 3,000 employees have actually relocated to remote locations.  And even these new  “remote” locations are . . . other big cites.  Their single anecdote about software engineer Ly Nguyen says she’s moving to Seattle (yet another large metro area, with a burgeoning tech sector and high rents). Even the anecdotes don’t support the headline.

People choose cities to be close to other people and amenities, not just jobs

Why do these stories get it so wrong? The implicit assumption is that people really don’t want to live in cities, except possibly as a way to earn money: The notion is that, freed from the “need” to live close to the office, people will decamp to suburban and rural areas, which they somehow prefer.  What that misses is that cities offer huge opportunities for art, culture, socialization, friendships and consumption.  People live in cities to be close to jobs, but also for a range of other reasons.

What a lot of this reporting misses is that the reason that most people choose to live in a particular city is not nearly so dominated by job availability as in the past.  We’ve surveyed well-educated young adults about their location preference, and by more than a two-to-one margin, they told us that they would choose the place they wanted to live, and look for a job there, rather than choose a place with the greatest number of job opportunities.

But even the narrative about jobs and remote work is wrong: Just because you might be able to do your current job by working remotely, what does this say about how where you live affects your ability to build a personal and professional network that helps you find your next job, a better job, or perhaps your dream job?  We know that a chief advantage of cities is that they offer thick labor markets and that a strong web of social and personal connections plays a key role in people finding better jobs, and developing their skills.

The other thing these sweeping claims about remote work miss is the competitive nature of career opportunities in many professional jobs.  Sure, you can work remotely; but as anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows, being there matters.  Being in the office means you are much more likely to be in-the-know, be perceived to be available and interested, and simply be harder to overlook. A remote worker may be cut off from the information and opportunities that enable them to proceed further; and when a boss is looking for someone to promote—or someone to lay-off— the remote worker is almost certainly at a disadvantage, compared to someone who’s always or regularly present in person. And if everyone has to work remotely for a short time—say, at the height of a pandemic—there’s no competitive disadvantage to working remotely; but once the office opens up again, it will be better for your career prospects if you’re in the office.

There will always be examples of mid- to late-career professionals, who, having honed their craft, built their reputations and established a strong network, will decamp from an expensive urban location to a bucolic country retreat. (Bend, Oregon is full of Californians who’ve turned their annual vacation destination into a permanent home).  But here’s the point:  the only way you get to have the skills, reputation and networks is to forge them by being in the thick of things in the city.  Especially for young adults, for people starting out, looking to learn a career, to find out what they’re good at and passionate about, and to find others who share their interests, there’s no place to be like a city. Which is exactly why our new report, Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance, shows that well-educated young adults are settling in the close-in neighborhoods of America’s largest metro areas in increasing numbers.

Cities have dealt with these challenges—and overblown prognostications of their demise—many times before. As the Journal writers concede (well down in the body of their story):

But Manhattan always seems to rise again, and urban centers like New York and San Francisco have continued to be gathering places for young talent to congregate and companies to find it.

In our view, that’s the real story, and its an understatement:  We see robust data underpinning an established and accelerating generational trend toward urban living. There’s one other trend we’re confident of as well:  the media will never tire of publishing anecdote-fueled anti-urban prognostications like this one.