10 Min. Read

New Pioneers

The past two years have spurred an unprecedented rethinking of physical and geographic place. Gen Zs are pioneering the new Wild Wests of America, propelled by remote work, hybrid education, a yearning for work-life balance, and the soft landing of parents’ homes.

Take Shelter

Spurred by college closures, remote work, changed financial situations, and more, 11% of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. moved either permanently or temporarily during the pandemic (compared with 5% of the general adult population), according to Pew Research. In July 2020, a majority of young adults crash-landed back in their parents’ homes — the first time that’s happened since the Great Depression.

Now, as colleges reopen and the job market rebounds, Gen Zs are relocating yet again.

So, we set out to learn: What places are most aspirational to Gen Zs today, where are they actually moving, and how will this new era of migration impact culture at-large?

Redefining the Good Life 

While many Gen Xers and Millennials flocked to big cities right out of college — drawn by creative aspirations and professional opportunity — the majority of Gen Zs we’ve recently spoken with reject the hustle culture trope embraced by young urbanites of the past. Rather, many Zs told us they’re looking to forge a more holistic lifestyle that enables both personal and professional growth. In fact, Gen Z job hunters rank work-life balance” as one of their top three deciding factors when considering whether or not to take a new job (along with salary and interest in the role), according to research by Tallo, a talent development firm.

Balance is especially appealing after an exhausting and stressful year and a half of the pandemic, which has led even career-focused Zs to forgo the strike it big” dreams of urban centers for the big life” experiences of more affordable places. The latter offers the chance to explore a wider range of pursuits, including creative and social opportunities, nature, hobbies, family, and more.

Beating New Paths

Many Zs tell us they’re carving out these big lives” not in the typical flashy locales that get the most buzz (e.g. New York, L.A.) but in more affordable mid-tier cities and towns with lower costs of living, shorter commutes, and more access to nature. For example, Allie, 25, runs her own design company — and while many of her creative peers are heading straight to New York to get big design jobs, she’s moving to Phoenix, where rent is cheap, the sun always shines, and there’s a flourishing creative community. Allie said she sees Zs as a generation divided: half still seeking out urban centers where you pay $5,000 for an apartment to be in a space where everything is going on,” while the other half lives where you can afford a cool spot for a lot less.” 

Gage, 25, agrees that moving to big cities just doesn’t seem strategic these days; after all, you’re more likely to get lost in the shuffle. When somebody says they’re moving to New York to make it big, that seems less thorough and planned. Like they’re just going to go and hope things will work out, because there’s a lot happening,” Gage explained. It makes more sense to find a niche place that’s not too saturated so you can find your community and make it into a thing.”

Gen Zs’ interest in beating new geographic paths isn’t just preference — it’s also become a necessity. After all, it’s still unclear if big urban dream jobs will still exist when the dust clears from the pandemic. Three in four CEOs said they will need a little” or a lot” less office space going forward, according to a survey by Fortune magazine, which doesn’t bode well for big-city labor markets.

Social Media Diaspora

Driving the rising urban-micropolitan divide is social media. While young people used to have to physically be in urban centers to be discovered” or to be a part of a cool scene, discovery can now happen from anywhere. In fact, according to some Zs, there’s even an extra dose of prestige that comes with being a creative from an off-the-beaten path location. 

For Julien, 18, Instagram was the vehicle that got his custom sneaker illustration business noticed (check out his work at @customkicksbyking). During the pandemic, he was discovered by the singer Khalid, who flew him to El Paso, Texas, to give custom kicks to kids as a back-to-school activation. And while Julien loves checking out the streetwear that urbanites rock on city streets, he prefers the slower pace of life available elsewhere. 

I just feel like there’s too much going on in the cities and people don’t have time to socialize. In the suburbs, you can meet your neighbors and hang out with your friends,” he told us. As Alyan, 18, added, there’s no need to hit cities for fashion inspiration anymore: If you look through social media nowadays, you’re going to see urban streetwear.”

Hometown Heroes 

Finally, one of the defining factors for where Gen Zs are landing these days comes down to where they can find much-needed family support. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of parents said their child’s post-high school plans have returned to what they were before the global pandemic, according to a report by Discover Student Loans. But of those Zs who permanently changed their college plans, most said they will now go to a school closer to home, attend an online university, or attend a less-expensive alternative, according to America’s Promise Alliance

The same study reported that 34% of Zs have changed their plans to attend college closer to home. This trend has far-reaching global implications: According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, international students have an estimated economic impact of about $300 billion annually — which will severely diminish as students remain more local.

While many Zs say getting away from their hometowns is still the dream, the pandemic will likely defer these plans for several years. I’m still living at home right now because I’m just going to community college,” said Calvin, 18, who noted that staying closer to home will likely remain financially realistic for the next few years. 

Avery, 20, agreed: I went to the same school from kindergarten through high school, so I wanted to get away from all the people that I had known for 13 years. But I still want to be close to home because traveling can be expensive. I went home last week and it cost me $120 in gas money.”