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The Working-from-home Migration

Upwork, a platform that supports freelancers conducted a major survey of more than 20,000 adults to look at the new phenomenon of people moving due to the pandemic, with questions also aimed at understanding the motivation for moving. Since Upwork supports people who largely work out of their homes, the survey concentrated on that issue.

What the survey verified what is already being covered widely by the press – people are moving due to the pandemic in large numbers. The survey found that the rate of migration is currently three to four times higher than the normal rate from recent years.

The key findings from the survey are as follows:

  • Between 6.9% and 11.5% of all households are considering moving due to the ability to work remotely. That equates to between 14 and 23 million people. It’s a pretty wide range of results, but likely a lot of people that want to move will end up not moving.
  • 53% of people are moving to find housing that is significantly less expensive than their current home.
  • 54% of people are moving beyond commuting distance and are moving more than a two-hour drive away from their current job.
  • People are moving from large and medium cities to places with lower housing density.

These findings are corroborated by a lot of other evidence. For example, data from Apartments.com show that rental occupancy and rates in cities are falling in the most expensive markets compared to the rest of the country. Realtors in smaller markets across the country are reporting a boom of new residents moving into communities.

Economic disruption often causes big changes in population migration and we saw spikes in people moving during the last two economic downturns. In those cases, there was a big shift in people moving from rural areas to cities and in people moving from the north to the south to follow job opportunities.

Interestingly, this new migration might reverse some of those past trends. Many rural communities have been losing population over the last few decades and the new migration patterns might reverse some of that long-term trend. People have been leaving rural parts of states to get jobs in urban centers and working from home is going to let many of these same people move back to be closer to families.

Of course, one of the issues that a lot of folks moving away from cities are going to face is that the broadband is often not as good where they want to move. The big cable companies have better networks in big cities than in smaller markets. You don’t have to move far outside of suburbs or rural county seats to find homes with little or no broadband. Even cellular coverage is a lot spottier outside of cities. I’ve seen local newspaper stories from all over the country of people who have bought rural homes only to find out that there was no broadband available.

But this isn’t true everywhere. There are some smaller towns with fiber to every home. There are rural areas with fiber to the farms. Rural communities that have fiber ought to be advertising it far and wide right now.

As a thought experiment, I looked at the states around me to see if I could identify areas that have fiber. The search was a lot harder than I thought it should be. States ought to have an easy-to-find map showing the availability of fiber because those communities are going to move to the top of the list for people who want a rural setting and who will be working from home.

I’ve worked from home for twenty years and I’m happy to see this opportunity open for millions of others. It gives you the freedom to live where you want and to choose where to live for reasons other than a job. It’s going to be an interesting decade ahead if people can move to where they want to live. I just have to warn local elected officials that new people moving to your community are going to be vocal about having great broadband.