Why millennials are leaving big cities for a quieter life

4 months ago 52
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I spent my twenties in Paris, but in reality I lived on the French real-estate website, SeLoger. Each day, I would travel the country through blurry thumbnail pictures of houses that cost less than €50,000, looking for words such as tomettes (hexagonal terracotta tiles), dans son jus (as it was left) and cerisier (cherry tree). Ten years after my search started, I still don’t own a house, but I did, however, leave the city.

Eighteen months ago, I moved to Ramsgate, a harbour town on the Kent coast, with boat masts like steeples, and pink and purple flowers growing out of white cliffs. Although not a million miles away from London—an hour and 17 minutes on the train, to be precise—before I settled seaward full time, I wondered what it would be like. If I’d miss the city, spend my life going back-and-forth, be lonely.

But I’m none of those things; I love it here. And in the end, property in the purely bricks-and-mortar sense turned out to be only a tiny part of it. It isn’t just that I have stairs or an ‘adult house’ (rented though it may be) after years of studio apartments. It’s that I can’t believe I get to live here full stop, with skies as big as this, and beaches and space.

The urban exodus—an international phenomenon

There are many longstanding reasons for migration from major cities to more rural areas. First of all, eye-watering rents as seen in the likes of San Francisco, where a two-bedroom flat will set you back more than $3,600 a month on average. Then there’s the ironic but unfunny case of urban loneliness, and the promise of liberalism that often isn’t delivered upon. With COVID-19, a new physical risk was added to the list, and now estate agents say their phones are ringing off the hook.

Stromness village in the Orkney islands, Scotland.

© Getty Images

Last year, writer Cal Flyn moved to Stromness—a stone-and-slate seaport village on the south-western edge of Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, a 90-minute ferry ride away from the mainland. (In the dystopian novel that is 2020, that makes her a ‘Before’ rather than an ‘After’.) “We dreamed about buying this tiny thatched drover’s cottage on the Hebridean island of Tiree about five years ago and went to view it before realising we had no way of working there,” she tells Vogue. “After that, we built a life around what was probably a romantic vision we had of ourselves in a remote place. My partner retrained as a teacher, something that will always be useful to, and employable in, a small community. And I built my freelancing work up so that I could work from anywhere.

“I loved London,” she continues, “but I worked full time, and still somehow left the city in several thousand pounds of debt.” Instead, 707 miles away in Stromness, they were “almost unbelievably” able to buy a house. They settled on a tiny 19th-century terrace on a winding lane, 15m from the sea. “Like a lot of people our age, that’s not something I ever anticipated I would be able to do. And because I’m under less financial stress, I’ve been able to pursue the work that I want to,” she says, adding: “Also, it’s beautiful here.”

Some things can’t be done in a big city

Millennials have a well-documented relationship with real estate. The millionaire property developer Tim Gurner would have us believe our housing woes are a result of our avocado toast habits, which—let’s spell out and underline in indelible internet ink—is not true. The truth is that we graduated in and around a recession, and watched prices gallop around us, unable to catch up.

But like I’d discovered in France, looking outside of cities, however, can offer a kind of time travel; a glitch in the matrix; a quickening in your chest that it might still be open to you. In the US, a millennial exodus from cities has left suburbs dubbed ‘Hipsturbia’, spurred on by Instagram realtors such as Cheap Old Houses, where it can feel like one, two or even three zeroes have been forgotten off the price.

Being priced out can also mean the opportunity to live a life differently. And if millennials were handed a dud round financially, we were also handed a joker card: high-speed internet. As companies including Facebook, Twitter and Spotify announce employees can work from home indefinitely, people have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pole-vault suburbs and theoretically go where they like. In China, the nostalgic countryside-set videos of blogger Li Ziqi have made her a ‘rural influencer’ and in Brazil, off-grid eco-homes have swelling follower counts.

Bagnoli del Trigno village, Molise, Italy.

© Getty Images

Certain escape routes also come with a helping hand. Even before the pandemic, one in four young people in Japan wanted to leave the city. This desire offers a way to repopulate rural villages on the brink of extinction, and so the government is helping with salaries and stipends. Around the world, underpopulated provinces from Saskatchewan, Canada, to Antikythera, Greece, are setting up similar schemes, offering tax credits, monthly stipends, or €1 houses to those who move there. In Molise, Italy, they’ll even pay you extra for each child you have.

Also, there are certain things that could never be done in the city. James Henry is an Australian chef who blazed into the Parisian restaurant scene in 2011 with a year at Au Passage and then started his own spot, Bones. Henry now lives in Saint-Vrain, France, an hour’s drive south from the capital, where he’s spent the last few years with fellow chef Shaun Kelly building a farm-to-table restaurant from the ground up.

They had to learn everything from scratch, but now they have a 3-acre garden growing everything from crookneck courgettes to ivory-white daikon radishes. “There was limitless potential to do something really different,” Henry says. “And so we went big. It’s been eye-opening to see what healthy soil, good seeds and a little bit of attention can produce.” In this case, their garden will be able to fully sustain the restaurant.

Millennials aren’t the first to leave the city

As I write, I’m aware of the easy evangelism; the tendency for each generation to think that it was the first to ‘discover’ the city was a trick and ‘invent’ leaving. In my case, it’s particularly embarrassing because I can feel like I invented the sea. When friends come to stay, I show them the vast body of water at the end of my road and present it as if I were pulling it out from my magician’s hat.

Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, UK, 1992.

© Geraint Lewis

Millennials are, of course, joining a long history of people leaving a city for something else. Take Argentine chef Francis Mallmann who now calls a remote (and secret) Patagonian island home, or the blustery bravery of artist Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage; essayist Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which he describes his cabin in the woods where he “wished to live deliberately”; writer James Baldwin’s villa, with orange trees and views of the Alps, in Provence; artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tuscan Tarot Garden and writing collective the Bloomsbury Group’s retreats to Charleston, East Sussex.

Those are the fantasy versions. The reality is mostly this—‘millennial’, the word once flung about to mean ‘young people’, in some cases now means ‘nearly 40’. People grow up, have kids maybe, want space. A tale as old as time; a tale now as old as us.

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Rosa Rankin-Gee’s second novel, Dreamland, is out April 2021 (Simon & Schuster). Cal Flyn’s book Islands of Abandonment is out January 2021 (Harper Collins). All being well, James Henry and Shaun Kelly’s Le Doyenné will be receiving guests from October

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Millennials in India are falling sick more often than ever, and no, it’s not just stress

Why are Millennials dressing like their grandparents?

Secluded resorts to city hotels–9 stays for a socially distanced ‘workation’

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