Opinion | Technology

Live here, work anywhere: How the pandemic is reversing rural trends

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

For too long, newspaper headlines in rural communities across our country told a similar story of college-educated young people packing their diplomas and moving to bigger cities with dreams of "making it big" in their careers and social lives. The opportunistic pull of the cities was so strong that it earned its own nickname, the "brain drain," and smaller communities were left struggling to compete with the seemingly insurmountable growth of urban centers around the country.

Traffic on this seemingly one-way street, however, is beginning to turn.

As described by the headline of an opinion article in this publication earlier this year - "Rural America booms as young workers leave the cities behind" - there are seeds of hope scattered among the many health and economic horrors caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, rural areas of our country that once seemed destined for only a graying population are growing and attracting younger residents. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey looked specifically at Americans who made a recent move and found that young people between the ages of 18 and 29 moved in higher numbers as a result of the pandemic. 

This is encouraging news for our organization, "Live and Work in Maine," which six years ago set out to change the narrative here. Maine is among the oldest states in the nation by median age; we share the third-longest border with Canada and have struggled for many years against stereotypes - such as "It's too cold and snowy" and "There are no jobs!" - that made it difficult for employers to lure and keep talent.

We spent years preparing and working to further our goal - to show the world that in Maine, you can have it all when it comes to quality of life and quality of career, and there are thousands of "success stories" to back up that claim. Yet, according to the results of a recent survey, we found overwhelmingly that the pandemic is the catalyst for change that has advanced our mission in record time. While some cities saw residents migrate out as the pandemic took hold, here in Maine the trajectory of our workforce accelerated and suddenly our quality of life was illuminated to the world. Almost overnight, what once seemed like barriers to growth became attributes. Fresh air and space to enjoy the outdoors were no longer disregarded, but critical to living. 

Our survey seemingly captured the trend happening around the country. Nearly eight in ten Maine workers currently working from home told us that they intend to continue working remotely at least part time when pandemic restrictions are fully lifted. Of the respondents who are currently working remotely, nearly half have been working from home for less than a year. Two-thirds said that they are not originally from Maine - but the vast majority agreed or strongly agreed that they can see themselves living and working in Maine for years to come.

These stories included new Mainers like a Bostonian who was able to move to Maine after his job went fully remote, a young woman who took on a new remote role and traded high rise buildings for sky-high mountains, and a family of four who left the nation's capital behind for the natural capital of Maine's forests, clean water, and ocean breezes.

Many of these remote workers had been thinking about a possible move some day, but the pandemic fast-tracked their decision.

Our survey shows that when faced with a request or the option to go back to work in the office, the majority of these workers are choosing to insist on a path which allows them to maintain their new lives away from the so-called concrete jungles and much closer to diverse geography and open space.

This sudden surge of fresh talent is bringing new opportunities and emphasizing the need to solve old challenges that need support from lawmakers in Washington - such as robust investments in high-speed internet connectivity that will bring all Americans online no matter where they live, and an expansion of an affordable supply of quality housing. Maine is fortunate to have a congressional delegation that recognizes this need and strongly supports these goals. But what's happening here is almost certainly happening in rural areas across the country.

The devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis can never be overlooked. The pandemic has up-ended lives and changed us and the way we live for generations to come. But it has also helped shine a spotlight on what's important and forced us to question whether the path we are on is the one we want to follow. For some, that path is leading them in a new direction or even bringing them back to where they began. To all who find their way to Maine, we say "welcome home."

Nate Wildes is Executive Director of Live+Work in Maine, a non-profit focused on raising awareness about the career opportunities and quality of life in Maine. He is also co-founder of Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick, Maine. He returned to Maine after having followed employment to the mid-west after graduation from the University of Maine.

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