Listen: People Are Panic-Moving

Will the pandemic remake big cities?

In the past few months, after the pandemic hit, many people have chosen to leave big cities—at least for now. Amanda Mull joins executive producer Katherine Wells and staff writer James Hamblin to talk about whether their departures will be permanent.

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Are people actually leaving cities right now in meaningful numbers?

Amanda Mull: It sort of depends on the city you’re talking about. There are a couple of things going on with New York, specifically. First, it was the epicenter of the global pandemic for a period of time, which is enough to make a lot of people skittish, especially people with options. New York is also just eye-wateringly expensive, and along with the health implications of the pandemic, there have been a lot of economic implications for people who are working in the service industry, people working in hospitality, especially. You get sort of a perfect storm in New York City of people who might be tempted to leave right now, or at least were tempted to consider the possibility over the past few months.

But then you try to square that with what we know about how people have been moving in and out of cities and in and out of different regions of the country in the United States in general over the past five years. And New York has a pretty high rate of attrition in normal times—when there’s no century-defining disaster going on. You see a wider picture of migration in this country where especially wealthy, mostly white, younger adults move out of the biggest, most expensive cities—San Francisco, New York, L.A.—and toward generally Sun Belt cities: Atlanta, Nashville, Austin.

James Hamblin: But the pandemic is going to make people want to be in cars and have yards, right?

Mull: That is sort of the theory that a lot of people are working on. I talked to two different demographers for this story and one of them in particular was suspicious of this theory. She said that, in general, people move for life-stage reasons. It is because of things that are happening internally in their lives. She was really not buying the idea that this is going to set off a huge, noticeable, sustained trend of people moving who were not at all planning to do it beforehand.

Wells: I feel like since the invention of the internet, and probably long before, people have been like, Remote work: You will be able to work from anywhere and Jobs will be completely done with technology and blah, blah, blah. That obviously hasn’t been the case. But now there’s this whole idea that much office work can be done functionally from anywhere. Is there any nuance to the kind of remote-office-work shift that’s going on?

Mull: I believed this for a while too, but reporting this story dissuaded me from this belief. The labor expert who I talked to was very suspicious. This article was just a process of me calling people who were like, I don’t think I buy that. When I asked him, “Are we going to work from home forever? And if we do, is that going to motivate a lot of people to move out of expensive cities where jobs are concentrated?” He was like, “I don’t think so.” As things are now, there is a high chance that a lot of people head back to offices sometime this year and that employers want to have at least part of their workforce in offices.

Wells: It sounds like the experts you talked to said grooves of behavior and location run deep, and it’s not like there’s a pandemic for three months and all of a sudden the cities empty out and we all live totally differently.

Hamblin: But when you can’t do the things that you love to do in the city, and if it becomes apparent that those things are forever changed or going to be gone for a very long time—like a packed bar or club or a musical concert or a theater—then doesn’t that change the value proposition of the city?

Mull: [The experts I spoke with] were not convinced that things would change enough to drive a lot of people out. If you are someone who really loves theater or really loves nightlife or something like that, there’s not like there’s a place you can move to get that back sooner. I think that they are going to have to wait it out wherever they go. And if they really liked what New York City provided them before, it seems that right now, their best option is to wait it out here if they can still afford it.

Wells: We’re at record-high unemployment, and it seems like there might be a migration happening with people who’ve been in the restaurant industry or in industries that are just clearly not going to come back the same way they were. Is that kind of migration happening?

Mull: Yeah, I was also curious about this. And what I learned in talking to some demographers is that it’s really only upper-middle-class and wealthy people who tend to move between cities or between regions. People with less money move between dwellings very frequently, but they move between cities or between regions very infrequently.

Wells: So this whole “Cities are going to empty out” thing is a phenomenon because a certain very online group of people who have the kinds of jobs that could be done remotely are wondering out loud if their lives would be nice somewhere else?

Mull: Right. The people who get charged with telling the stories of how the pandemic is going, and especially in New York, are generally people who might be wondering themselves if they should leave. But that phenomenon, that flexibility, is largely a function of being college-educated, upper-middle class or wealthy, and having family financial resources that could help them if they lose a job or something like that. People who have lived in New York for their entire lives and have working-class jobs are generally playing with a much different set of factors and incentives.

I think the larger trend that’s at play here is that cities need to figure out how they become hospitable places for people who want to have children. And I think that that is a problem that is sort of understood to be the thing that is pushing people out of cities like San Francisco and New York and L.A. That was true before the pandemic and it’s true now.

Wells: Yeah, but generation upon generation of people have been born and raised in New York City, and most people don’t leave to have a baby. So I know it’s possible. Cities could definitely make it easier, but most people don’t leave the place they are from just to have a child, right?

Mull: I think that in the past that has been true, but especially in these very expensive, very crowded cities, you see a disconnect in the past decade or two between housing prices and wages. That [disconnect] is larger and getting even bigger than it ever has been before in the country’s history. So there’s this tension increasing in a way that the previous generations of people didn’t have to think about as much. People who are not rich enough to buy their way out of this problem in New York City, but who have enough flexibility and resources to move elsewhere to solve the problem—that’s the tier of people who end up leaving.

Wells: Yeah. So in summation, the rumors of the death of cities ...

Mull: ... have been largely exaggerated.

Hamblin: And for anyone out there who might be considering panic-moving, you’d say—don’t?

Mull: Yeah, I would say if you think you can tough it out for another year and see what happens, I think that everybody who can do that who is considering moving now will be in a better position to make an informed decision. Every time I report a story on what the pandemic is doing to American life, the thing that experts of whatever kind tell me is that we don’t know how this is going to play out and that there is not enough data yet to give us good indications by which we can make decisions. So I think that if people can just white-knuckle this for like six months or a year or more, they are going to have so much more information.