Are we really all leaving the city?

Interiors 25th May 2021 7 mins
Karl Smith

Much has been made over the course of the last year — and, in all fairness, for some time before — of the idea that people, particularly young people, are leaving the city. Or, more specifically, leaving London. A kind of millennial exodus from the capital. 

It’s not a new idea, of course — it’s like the “death of the novel,” or any of those other ideas trotted out time and time again by those with a clear vested interest in reframing that situation. (I’m looking at you here, Will Self.) 

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a crunchy and potentially delicious kernel of truth at the centre of this otherwise less than nutritious and frustratingly stale theory. 

Everyone has to get one right sometimes, after all.

"As people age, and their priorities begin to change, so do the locations that most appeal to them in the next stage of their life."

To that end, the very short answer is “yes.” In fact, there are multiple articles from reputable sources across the internet – such as this one from DAZED, or this one on CNBC, or even this one at VICE UK. The truth, as they say, is out there. And if, for some reason, you don’t find “the internet” to be a reputable source then, well, 1. what exactly are you doing here, and 2. it’s out there in print, too!

The pre-pandemic reasons for this are well-trodden: surging rent prices for what we’ll  favourably call “sub-par” accommodation: a truly absurd cost of living; and a poor work-life balance that so often leads to a burnout which only makes those other reasons feel worse.

All things which people who live outside of London are constantly – and, dare I say, somewhat smugly – at great pains to remind their city-dwelling friends and family about whenever the chance presents itself. (And, in my experience, quite often when it doesn’t.)

Another factor, too, is that the chances of home ownership are significantly higher in the suburbs and exurbs, where the majority of those now leaving London came from in the first place, before career ambitions pushed them into the city with a view to “making it.”

And in that sense it seems important here to point out that, for the most part, it isn’t people from London who are making their exit — not the people who were raised in the city or who have family and longstanding cultural connections within its borders — but, rather, people for whom the party is winding down because it was precisely that.

Of course — as we’re now beginning to be oh-so-gently reminded — London has always had perks beyond employment aspirations: restaurants, museums, galleries, bars, pubs, theatre, music, and — of course, perhaps most importantly — like-minded people to share those things with. Nowhere else in the U.K. are you likely to find quite so many people, having arrived from such disparate corners of the country, or indeed the world, who hold so many of the same ideas and values.

But — in the same way that the city once held certain possibilities for people in the throes of their youth — as those same people age, and their priorities begin to change, so do the locations that most appeal to them in the next stage of their life.

And who can blame them? The suburbs, the exurbs, and the sprawl of the countryside all, albeit in varying degrees, have something in common that the city just can’t lay claim to: space.

“ Even as our cities expand and spill over into green belts and brown belts alike, still there is no more room.

In the city, space is at a premium and it always will be. Even as our cities expand and spill over into green belts and brown belts alike — beginning to join up and inevitably swallow the small towns and villages that orbit them — still, somehow, there is no more room.

It’s rare that you see a “Grand Design,” or anything in that same vein, within the borders of a name-brand U.K. city. And, while it’s true the NIMBY factor does tend to kick a little harder out in the country, opportunities to do more interesting things are just easier to come by. Because so is land.

Contrary to the narrative, the truth isn’t necessarily that people are being pushed out of London in their droves. (Or at least not people who actually have the option of leaving, anyway.) Rather, it’s that the city now pushes back too hard against their shifting aspirations.

People — particularly millennials, the erstwhile younger generation now giving way to their Gen Z sucesssors — have moved on. The party, to circle back on a metaphor, is no longer one they can bank on being invited to. And, to be honest — with their stamina on the wain — one they’re kind of relieved to get out of.

A new location brings new challenges — new possibilities. Even if — like peace and quiet, or the chance at a home if their own — those possibilities seem a little less obviously exciting on the face of it.

But, as one recently octogenarian songwriter once said, “the times, they are a-changing.”