Featured: original Loughlin Joseph image.
In February, my husband and I decided not to renew the contract on the terraced house we have been renting in Camberwell, south London, for the past four years. After getting married last year, we had reached a point in our lives where we wanted to buy a place of our own, but – given London prices – the scale of the deposit we needed, even for a place on the outskirts of the city, was impossible to put aside while renting. The only sensible thing to do was move out of the city in search of something we could afford. This was a decision made with our heads, not our hearts. We loved life in London.
Then the pandemic hit and everything we enjoyed about the city shuttered overnight. Suddenly, we were working from home at opposite ends of the kitchen table (with an increasingly frustrated dog pinballing around our feet), with no green space to escape to. It was all the sweltering, noisy, cramped negatives with none of the positives. On the day of our move, as London sizzled with the hottest temperature of 2020 so far, I only realised as we were driving our Volvo out of the Rotherhithe Tunnel, on our way to Bedfordshire, that I hadn’t even looked back at the house as we left.
The decision to leave the city wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to the pandemic, although the situation reassured us that we were doing the right thing. Even before the prospect of a second lockdown and lifelong renting really dawned on us, we made the decision based on a growing desire to get closer to greenery. Since hitting his thirties, my husband has become increasingly interested in gardening – a pastime that’s hard to pursue in a city dominated by high-rises and hastily converted Victorian houses. With multiple-year waits at our local allotments and our house maxed out with pot plants, we knew that the only way we would be able to connect with nature in a more meaningful way everyday would be to leave the city – and all the excitement it had given us over the past 15 years – behind.
Of course, urbanites moving out of the city in search of greener grass (any grass, quite frankly) isn’t a new idea and I’m certainly not the first person to wonder why it’s happening now. However, it’s become a real trend with millennials, who, like me and my husband, were born between 1981 and 1996. Though countless think pieces have been dedicated to whether we are spending too much money on avocado toast or fancy coffees (mine’s a dry cappuccino, if you’re ordering), the real reason most millennials haven’t ended up on the housing ladder is considerably less silly and is directly related to those cursed birth years. Thanks to an age of austerity, the rise in the cost of higher education demanded by employers and several recessions, first-time buyers now require a pole vault and family wealth to get onto the rungs of the property ladder.
In fact, around the time we were informing our landlord of our intention to vacate our lease, figures from digital broker Mojo Mortgages and Yahoo Finance UK reported that average property prices in the UK have risen twice as fast as the rate of wages, meaning UK millennials looking to buy a home now are faced with prices that are at least 14 times higher than those trying to do the same in the late 1970s.
It’s a similar story in cities across the world. In the US, a booming housing market means that deposits are reaching record highs. According to The Atlantic, reporting on real-estate firm Unison’s home affordability calculations in 2019, in Los Angeles it would take a first-time buyer on the city’s gross median income about 43 years to save up for a down payment on an average-priced house – meaning they’d finally be ready to apply for a mortgage aged 73. In New York and Miami, it’s 36 years. In Portland it’s a positively speedy 23.
Saving for a deposit in cities where younger people increasingly live a hand-to-mouth existence is incredibly hard – and yet, many industries require you to work in a city. It’s a vicious circle that has led to millennials getting the nickname “generation rent”.
Well, the renters are moving out. You only need to look at Instagram to see that Covid-19 has turned the trickle of thirtysomethings leaving the city into a torrent. The sleepy housing market in areas around New York City, for example, has woken up, with properties being snapped up nearly as soon as they hit the market.
“There has certainly been an increase in millennials looking for houses out of town lately, and no doubt Covid has been the catalyst,” says Mr James Klonaris, head of appraisals for UK-based estate agency The Modern House. “Many more young people are willing to commute if it’s only two days a week and this opens swathes of the country up to all types of buyers. With millennials, anywhere with a good internet connection will do and the last few months have been the push that many needed,” he continues.
Of course, an excellent communication network isn’t the only factor. When I call Mr Chris Benz, 37, at his home in Long Island, the line is crackly even by transatlantic standards. “Really sorry for the reception,” he says. “A storm just knocked out our phone signal last night.”
A Brooklyn resident, the designer started looking for a weekend home somewhere less hectic in 2017 – eventually settling on a little 1830s cottage near the beach in Bellport. However, when the pandemic gripped New York earlier this year, he and his boyfriend packed the car and relocated there for the weekdays, too.
So far, they have found very few problems with living and working together in the countryside. “I take the back porch and he takes the front,” Mr Benz says. And, contrary to the stereotypes many millennials might have about there being a lack of things to do for those under middle age outside of cities (no doubt a side-effect of growing up confined in sleepy city suburbs), Mr Benz has found a community of young people to socialise with in much the same way he would in New York – albeit gelled together with different priorities. “I think we all share a commonality of feeling out here. We want a casual, relaxed town to live in,” he says. “That collective feeling is something that everyone here is very territorial over.”
It’s a similar story for Mr Luke Edward Hall, 30, an illustrator and interior designer who has spent lockdown in his house in Gloucestershire, UK – just under two hours away from central London. “For a while, we were mostly going at weekends,” he says. “As time went on, we found we were extending our visits by leaving on a Thursday and coming back on a Monday or a Tuesday. When the lockdown was announced, we came here full-time, and it’s made us realise we can be here far more than we thought. Now the plan is to spend most of our time in the country and only pop back to London when we have to.”
In July, Mr Hall committed to this by letting go of his work studio near Highbury Fields and moving everything he needed for work up to the Gloucestershire outpost. While he still has a small flat in Camden for the moment, this move is potentially laying the foundation for shifting even further from the capital in the future. “The garden has become a huge priority for us,” he says. “It was always a hobby, but we couldn’t do much about it in London apart from a couple of pot plants in our flat. Settling up the garden, growing vegetables and flowers, finding local places to buy plants and seeds has been a really lovely change of pace from city life.”
This is the factor at play here beyond coronavirus and high property prices: life outside of the city often brings a more direct connection to greenery. The desire to create bonds with the natural world has become a well-documented cornerstone of the generation. Experts have spent numerous column inches trying to explain millennials’ obsession with succulents and selfies at lavender farms, but even a novice can connect the dots to conclude that when you combine a culture of self-care with environmental awareness, all while living in a place populated with concrete towers instead of trees, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for craving something more natural.
Perhaps this pressing need for space and greenery – brewing since before the pandemic, but compounded by it – is the most important factor in this peculiarly millennial rejection of urban life. While some who have left the city might ultimately return on a full- or part-time basis after the worst of the pandemic is over, the current crisis has exposed a lot of city-based millennials to a slower-paced, more settled lifestyle they didn’t know they wanted.
In fact, at one time, many of us rolled our eyes at the idea of “moving to the suburbs” when we were younger. But, with global governments instituting work-from-home policies at the same time as most of this age bracket were thinking about big, mid-career life decisions (buying a home, starting a family, even changing careers altogether), leaving the city might just be the solution to so many of my generation’s frustrations.
For many, the glamour of living in a big city no longer outweighs a lifetime of paying someone else’s mortgage or raising a family in a more confined space than you would have outside of the city. Suddenly, some space to grow tomatoes seems far more aspirational than the shuttered nightclubs, crowded parks and fights over packs of toilet roll that city life has become.
“When you’re living in the city, you work long hours and you’re going out every night. The pace is so fast and you end up not necessarily being happier, just busier,” says Mr David Hamil, 38, a regional manager at an insurance brokerage in Sydney, Australia. In March, he relocated from Manly in northern Sydney to the seaside town of Kiama, roughly a two-hour drive south of New South Wales’ capital.
“When Covid hit, we noticed a house come up for rent here, so we took a punt, signed a six-month lease, put everything in storage and drove out here,” he says. “After about a month, we realised that this is where we want to spend most of our time, rather than the city. We ended up buying a place, which settles at the end of September.”
Does he think he’ll miss the city long term? “We’ve been back to Sydney a couple of times and, for the minute, the world has changed – cities have changed. A lot of restaurants and shops we loved have shut down,” he says. “They’ll come back at some point of course, but in the meantime, it gives us the chance to take a breath and consider what we really want.”
In other words: the culture and the food (mostly, the food) that comes with city life is still appealing, but most cities can barely get their restaurant industries back on track let alone other cultural institutions. And it’s likely to stay this way for months, if not years, which is a very bleak prospect.
So, how am I liking it, you ask? I’m only a couple of days in, but I can tell you that working on my laptop in the garden with a calm dog at my feet definitely beats sweating it out in the city. Dare I say it: I think this is it for me, there’s no going back. And, after all, when the city bursts into life once again, it’ll only be a train ride away.