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.