In August, Paul Senker took a trip home to Philadelphia and had a revelation. The 32-year-old water resources engineer had been living alone in Los Angeles since the start of the pandemic, his fifth year in Southern California. Back in Philly, seeing his parents and his brother who had recently moved home, he thought: “California’s really great, but it’s not going to give me the thing I need. This is way better for this new world we’re in.”
In December, Senker drove across the country. He spent Christmas Eve in New Orleans, and now lives a short drive from his parents in Philadelphia. He sees his brothers and friends he grew up with. “It definitely feels good to be back in the nest,” he told me last week. “I’m lucky my parents live someplace I want to live—they didn’t follow the rest of our relatives down to Boca Raton.” Senker sees his folks once a week, in the backyard. They’re in their 70s and cautious about COVID. The other day, he surprised his mom with sushi from her favorite restaurant, which she hadn’t been to since the pandemic started.
Senker is one of many Americans—likely in the millions—who have moved during the pandemic to be near family. For him, and many others, it’s a decision that will outlast the coronavirus shutdowns. Senker once drove L.A.’s notorious freeways to his job, but six months into the pandemic, he had no trouble convincing his boss to let him work long-term from Philadelphia, where his firm has an office.
In January, Fortune magazine asked more than 100 U.S. CEOs how much office space they will need going forward. The results, published last week, do not bode well for major city centers: Three in four surveyed CEOs say they will need “a little” or “a lot” less office space going forward.
After nearly a year of working in pajamas, this forecast comes as no surprise. There’s a large group of people who are very eager to see the status quo, wherein high-income workers increasingly congregate in just a few cities, collapse. These include conservative economists, red-state politicians, technologists, Midwest boosters, small-town mayors … and so on.
As I wrote two weeks ago, I am skeptical about a revolution in which knowledge workers head for cheaper pastures—in part because the appeal of places like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area goes well beyond the office. (If anyone stands to benefit from not going to work every day, it’s New Yorkers, who have the longest commutes in the nation by far.) Furthermore, Americans have moved less in recent years than at any point in our history. And historically, economic downturns are associated with less mobility—not more.
But there’s another factor I hadn’t considered, one that so far appears to be the single largest driver of pandemic-era migration: family.
According to a Pew survey of 12,600 U.S. adults published this month, 5 percent of Americans moved for reasons related to the coronavirus outbreak. Forty percent of those people moved into a different community than where they lived before the pandemic; 17 percent moved to be near family. But that may undercount the family movers, since another 14 percent of respondents moved because of a college campus closure, and more than 30 percent moved because of financial problems including job loss. In either case, living near—or even with family—seems like a likely outcome.
Already, the average American adult lives just 18 miles from mom, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. In that 2015 article, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui wrote that families lived closest in the Northeast and the South and farthest in the West and Mountain States—reflecting patterns of both human geography and culture. By 2016, according to Pew, multi-generational living had rebounded from its 1980 nadir to reach levels last seen in 1950, encompassing 64 million Americans.
The No. 1 thing that compelled us to move in the pre-COVID world was work. The No. 1 reason not to move? Family ties. But what if, unchained from the pull of big-city labor markets, the opposite happened, and Americans who have been freed to work from anywhere decide to do it closer to their folks? What if they begin to establish the kind of extended-family living arrangements we might more readily associate with European countries like Italy or Spain?
What relocations like this portend for the geography of American labor at large is anyone’s guess, though I don’t think it necessarily means younger people moving to retirement communities in Phoenix. It could instead push against long-standing migration trends, pulling young people and families back to depopulating regions or small towns. (Meanwhile, as with Paul Senker in Philadelphia, it could simply shuffle some workers from one large metro area to another.)
Last March, Laura Joyce Davis started a podcast called Shelter in Place, not expecting a run of 135 episodes and counting. At the time, she, her husband, and her three kids were riding out the pandemic in their home in Oakland, California. Nearly a year later, they have moved to the North Shore of Massachusetts, where her mother-in-law runs an improvised one-room schoolhouse for her kids. Davis is not sure if her family will return to Oakland but says that in the time since they left, she has heard of friends leaving, and others who left and then returned. In every case, she said, family has been the main draw.
America’s various societal failings provide incentives to live with family at every step of the way. Young adults have been hit by job loss and closures related to the country’s inability to control the pandemic. In September, Pew reported that more than half of 18-to-29-year-olds were living with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression. But the trend predates the current crisis. Sky-high rents and home prices have kept a generation of young people in their aging parents’ houses. Accustomed to life with roommates, younger millennials may find parental cohabitation agreeable.
Parents of young children, meanwhile, reckon with the varying quality of U.S. schools (not to mention whether they’re even open) and the nearly nationwide lack of affordable child care. Siblings and parents can help take a load off.
Senior citizens, finally, confront the problems of getting older in a society that makes it awfully hard to age in place. The pandemic has exposed the inhumane economics that undergird nursing home infrastructure. But grown children have always been the No. 1 source of care for their parents.
Those are only the push factors. There’s also a great deal to enjoy about multigenerational living, and the pandemic’s limitations on travel and social life have made people realize how much they miss their families.
Maddie Coombs, a 34-year-old general contractor from Washington, Missouri, a small town 45 miles west of St. Louis, moved to Chicago for college.* “I wanted to go as far as I could, and Chicago was as far as I could,” she said. More than a decade later, married with two kids and a third on the way, Coombs and her husband were planning to move to the Chicago suburbs.
Instead, they sold their house in Chicago and bought one in Washington, population 14,000.
“COVID changed the calculus on how important it was to be near family,” Coombs told me. “The boys go over and play with my dad once a week and my mom at least once a week, if not a couple times. I live seven minutes from her, and she’s very tickled by that, she just drops in. Especially young kids, with someone they don’t see very frequently it takes a while for them to warm up. They’re clearly just more bonded and attached.”
There is still some culture shock in small-town America. Coombs could not find garam masala at the supermarket. There’s no infant day care, so for the moment she is not working, to care for her 6-month-old daughter. Her husband, who works for the Securities and Exchange Commission, is doing his job remotely.
But the family reunion continues apace. Two of Coombs’ siblings already live here. Another brother, a schoolteacher in St. Louis, spent the summer in Washington. Her sister-in-law, a lawyer in Brooklyn, closed on a house on Friday.
Correction, Feb. 8, 2021: This article initially misstated that Washington was east of St. Louis. It is west.