Post COVID more people will live in the country and work remotely

Posted: 27th May

More people will live in the country and work from home after COVID, experts say

 
Friday 22 May 2020 6:00am
 
With COVID and Zoom and the newfound ease of working from home, moving to the country is looking more feasible.
 
Image: Cottage Core, a romanticised view of country living is taking off 
Supplied: Instagram @abigail_janine
 
 
For the last couple decades, young people in Australian cities have been told they have two basic options: rent forever or else take on a massive mortgage to own a plot in the outer suburbs. If they're single, they might get an apartment slightly closer.
Even if you're not thinking of buying a house right now, you've probably absorbed that idea already. It may have shaped your decisions about whether and what to study, and whether to travel and spend or work and save.
Now, with COVID and Zoom and the newfound ease of working from home, a third option is shaping up as feasible: moving to the country.
This shift, which is already quietly underway, could have profound implications for your future — deciding whether you'll one day buy a house, and where, and whether you choose a career that allows for remote working arrangements.
"Now with COVID-19, things change," Simon Kuestenmacher, director of research at Melbourne's The Demographics Group, told Hack.
For many years, he says, all levels of government have tried to distribute population growth more evenly — to slow the runaway sprawl and congestion of the capitals. And although people have been trickling out of the cities, it hasn't been enough to offset overseas arrivals; Sydney has grown by about a million people in 10 years.
One big reason for this is jobs: "The jobs that have been added in Australia have been knowledge ones, and these are in the cities," Simon said.
That was the state of play before COVID. Then four things changed.

1. Global supply chains were threatened

Even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, it had shown what could happen if the flow of goods into Australia was disrupted.
As factories closed in China, stockpiles dwindled in Australia. Major retailers such as Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi reported shortages. Next, there weren't enough masks and face shields for health workers. It turned out these were made in China. Australia had been outsourcing manufacturing for the past few decades; now it turned out this could be a problem when the ports and airports closed.
"COVID has taught the importance of supply-chain sovereignty," Simon said.
As a result, he says, there'll be more investment in Australian agriculture and manufacturing — making sure we have enough to feed ourselves, and not run out of critical goods. This translates into more jobs in regional areas.

2. Mass unemployment

Almost one million Australians are out of work due to coronavirus. With the recovery, governments will be doing everything they can to create jobs. A simple strategy would be huge public investment in infrastructure. A stated priority for Australian infrastructure is connecting major cities and regional centres; that's right, a high-speed train. The dream of a Melbourne-Sydney rail link may finally come to pass.
"This will work in favour of regional centres and smaller towns along the way," Simon said.
"It would allow for extreme commutes for some workers."

3. City-dwellers began dreaming of wide open spaces

Having been stuck in tiny apartments through the pandemic, people are dreaming of escaping to the country. Some may even follow through.
Simon calls this, "The general preference shift to low-density living."
"There's been a shift in preferences to larger dwellings, to family as a focal point, as more important than friends," he said.
Earlier this month, real estate website Domain reported "Australians appear to be dreaming about their tree change once they come out of coronavirus lockdown with interstate searches for property skyrocketing". Interstate searches for property in Western Australia had jumped 120 per cent from March 26 to May 4.
Lockdown "cottagecore" has also become a thing — a social media aesthetic of wholesomeness in romanticised country settings.
 
Is that a sign of "the general preference shift to low-density living"? According to property trends experts, that shift was well underway before COVID. The pandemic and lockdown has simply "accelerated" that trend.
"The virus shutdown period is going to be a catalyst for this becoming a serious trend," Simon Pressley, head of research at Propertyology, told Hack.
"The Australian Dream is heading out to the country."
The growth in the size of Sydney and Melbourne is masking the fact that they're becoming increasingly unpopular places to live, Simon says.
Last financial year, Sydney lost 27,000 people to what's called 'internal migration' — residents moving to the country. Though that's a small proportion of Sydney's total, it's a lot for the regions — the entire population of the NSW town of Orange in two years. Sydney only keeps growing because overseas arrivals choose the Harbour City.
"Five out of eight capital cities lost population to internal migration last year," Simon said.
"That trend will accelerate."

4. Working from home clearly worked

Zoom usage has soared from 10 million daily meeting participants back in December to 300 million in April. Microsoft recently recorded 200 million meeting participants in a single day. Google Meet is adding roughly three million new users per day. If nothing else, COVID-19 has taught us people can work from home.
Will it last? Simon thinks so. "We do know that once you grant a person a benefit or a privilege it's very hard to take that away," he said.
"Lots of people are very keen to return to the office but many people who want to work from home see this as a godsend."
Some jobs are hard to do from home; some are easier. Tech jobs are easier. Last week, after months of working from home, Twitter announced that its employers will be allowed to continue to work remotely — permanently.
In a recent US survey, 83 per cent of tech workers said they'd been able to work from home. Just two per cent said they never want to work from home again. By comparison, teachers were less keen on the trend. Some jobs are hard to do from home; some are easier. In general, however, most workers like having the option. About half of all workers indicated they'd been able to do their jobs remotely in recent weeks and also reported higher levels of job satisfaction than those still going into the office. Many said they want to keep working from home. Asked how they were spending the time they saved not commuting, the top activities were spending time with family, relaxing and sleeping. Sounds better than commuting.
"Research on the psychology of happiness shows that the time in your life that you're least happy is when you're commuting in a car," Simon Kuestenmacher said.
"You sit in a machine that's going 200km/h and you go 12km/h."
"The constant disconnect between what you're experiencing and what you think you should be doing is driving you mad."
"If you take this disconnect away you make yourself happier."

Millennials in particular may flock to the country

The first generation to take advantage of this new flexibility will be Millennials — born between the start of the 80s and the middle of the 90s. This is the generation that's been effectively locked out of the housing market. Now of an age where they're having children, they're looking for more bedrooms. They can either buy in the suburbs or pay less and take advantage of WFH by moving to a regional centre.
"Millennials are the great procrastinators," Simon said.
"They invented the gap year, stayed at uni longer to get another degree, married later, bought their first home later, had their first kid later.
"They're about to start having kids and they require dwellings big enough to raise 1.8 children and have both parents working from home."
Millennials will move out of their cramped city apartments, and Gen Z (born mid-90s to early 2010s) will move in, Simon says. Working from home and the rise of the regions won't stop young people moving to the city. They'll still study and hang out and compete for entry-level jobs. They'll still live in crappy share-houses and eat bad food. 
But it will change young people's ideas of what comes next. They may no longer imagine moving out to the suburbs in their mid to late 30s. The property ladder may not appear so steep. Cottagecore may come to pass.

Facing 'the fear of isolation'

Of course, decisions about where to live aren't based entirely on house prices and commute times. Cities offer the prospect of meeting people; friends and companionship. They have an aura of excitement. They suggest community.
Lilli Crovara, a PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne is interviewing people who are working remotely from the country, having moved from the city. She's found that many speak about "the fear of isolation".
"They're moving somewhere where they know no one," she said.
One way of meeting people is through sports. Another is at coworking spaces.
"They say it really helps their social life — they can talk with other people who have the same pains and challenges."
In 2018 in Dubbo, on the edge of a Great Western Plains, 400km from Sydney, the daughter of a local farmer returned home after graduating with an Engineering degree from Stanford University. Jillian Kilby bought the abandoned post office and opened the renovated space in December 2019 — just a few months before the pandemic.
 
"Lots of people use it 1-2 days a week," Jillian said.
"We have people who work for the government, we have people who drop in and work as small business owners with clients all around Australia. We have the owner of a fashion business in Mexico. We have content copywriters who serve clients right across Australia. I work from this space and serve clients in California."
She says she expects "tele-commuting" to increase as part of the trend of people moving from the capital cities to regional centres.
"They make the decision where they want to live based on key factors, such as good air-service back to their job, great coffee, and great community,
"They look to a hub like The Exchange with great WiFi and people."
With the COVID-19 restrictions, the space had to briefly close its doors. Its business innovation and workshops moved online. That was when Jillian noticed something strange; users were logging in from as far away as Western Australia. A co-working space for Dubbo had unintentionally met a broader need.
"People are craving a level of confidence and comfort when they work remotely," Jillian said.
"The Exchange is a piece of the city in a country town