For the last several decades, Americans have been more reticent to move even when confronted with economic hardships. Unlike mass migrations of the past, even the Great Recession failed to impact the trend to stay put. But one of the lasting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic might very well be an increase in geographic mobility for the first time in more than a generation.
With so much of the workforce in America operating outside of the traditional office space due to a global pandemic, and many companies looking to reconfigure, if not reduce, existing office space due to changing needs, there is greater opportunity for highly skilled and sought after employees to choose to work outside of traditional urban markets.
It has long been noted that the younger generations place a much greater value on experiences over merchandise when it comes to their discretionary spending, so it seems natural for them to extend those desires to the workplace.
In an era with a workforce that can work from anywhere, the ping pong table in the office might not be enough to attract quality talent. They are looking outside the confines of the traditional office space and asking themselves, what do I expect from a quality of life standpoint more holistically? In other words, where do I want to live and what will that look like? Do I really need to be spending $2000 a month on rent to live in a high-density urban marketplace with three other people, if I can live elsewhere and get similar, if not different, experiences with greater value and lower costs? Probably not.
With an increasingly mobile workforce, and great interconnectivity, cities, metro areas, small towns and suburbs will all be under increased pressure to provide high quality experiential destinations to attract residents and businesses. Population density alone will no longer be the justification for being the center of commerce. In fact, if the trend of global pandemics continues, as experts say it will, population density will be looked upon much like it was at the turn of the last century, with trepidation.
What once might have been considered second or third-tiered cities, mainly due to their size, could end up being a well-spring of growth as younger workers, still looking for a vibrant community, choose quality of life over scale, while continuing to work for that Fortune 500 company. And when those large corporations no longer feel the need to be situated in dense, urban areas, they too might decide to move to greener pastures where they can spread out and create campuses of their own.
There is no real expectation of a mass exodus from urban areas any time soon, but the competition is going to be fierce, as new opportunities abound. Smaller cities will be in a position to vitalize their downtowns, creating exciting urban spaces, if on a smaller scale. Not to be outdone, major urban cities will be forced to make better use of common areas, many of which have been neglected or forgotten, to create a more dynamic quality of life for those who choose to stay. People are willing to live in smaller spaces, for a quality of urban life they could not otherwise afford, but there had better be a lot to justify it just outside their front door.
High quality experiences have long been the goal with everything from retail and hospitality, to urban planning and residential architecture. Now that the world is opening up again, those who can create memorable experiences that connect with people on an emotional level, will be the ones who set the stage for growth.