The new normal is coming. And it’s bringing with it a mobile class of worker transforming where we work and the make-up of our cities.
Remote work itself is nothing new. According to a recent study by economists at the University of Chicago, five percent of all work days were done remotely even before the pandemic. But the scale of mid-pandemic remote work was unprecedented, and researchers don’t see that trend fully subsiding. Their estimates of post-pandemic remote work days reach as high as 20 percent.
“Obviously, a lot of folks are going to end up back in offices, but that pendulum is not going to swing all the way back,” Chris Salviati, a senior economist at Apartment List, said, “This really creates an environment now where there's going to be a large share of the workforce that will be able to choose where they want to live independently of where their job is located, which is not really something that's happened in the past.”
The persistence of remote work is in part due to employee expectations. A survey conducted by economists at Apartment List, a nationwide platform for apartment listings, found that three out of four employees currently working from home expect the flexibility of choosing their work location to continue.
Of course, not all employees have the luxury to dictate where they work. A nurse can’t administer care from her living room. A waiter can’t take your order from his couch. And no home office worker is capable of safely operating heavy machinery from across town.
These conditions are creating a new category of worker who is freed from geographic restrictions on where to live based on where they work. Salviati has coined these workers “the untethered class.”
The untethered class are generally highly educated, work in knowledge-based jobs, and earn higher wages than their tethered counterparts. Apartment List believes 29% of the national workforce is employed in these types of remote-friendly occupations.
A Business of Business analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics looked at three broad categories of employees from which the majority of remote-friendly jobs are drawn: information, finance and insurance, and professional services.
In 2019, before the pandemic began shifting work habits, many of these workers were located in or near the nation’s largest cities, including Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Among the top 20 counties with the highest proportions of workers in these industries compared to its total workforce, 13 were from these locales, according to our analysis:
The remaining 7 were split among emerging tech hubs—like Austin, Denver, and the number one county, Roane, a suburb of Nashville—or in large central metros like Dallas and Atlanta. Rounding out the top five, was Dallas County, IA outside Des Moines, a city known for a high concentration of insurance workers. (Polk County, which contains Des Moines proper, came in at number 32.) Counties surrounding Bloomington, IL, and Huntsville, AL also made the list.
But Salviati warns that having a remote-friendly job alone isn’t enough to qualify a worker as part of the untethered class. There are other lifestyle qualifications as well, including marriage status or a spouse’s occupation in remote-friendly work, having no school-aged children, and not being committed to homeownership.
“These are the folks that face the least friction in moving,” he said. “They really face no significant barriers to packing up and moving across the county were they to choose to do so.”
It’s the last criterion of the untethered class—homeownership—that pushes cities like Des Moines all the way down to 58th on Apartment List’s untethered class concentration rankings. With relatively high salaries and lower home prices, many Des Moineians in remote-friendly jobs are already homeowners. In contrast, despite high salaries, remote-eligible workers in San Francisco are still often on the outside looking in when it comes to the area’s expensive housing market. As a result, untethered workers make up 13 percent of San Francisco’s work force. In New York and DC, it’s 10 percent. Nationwide, the estimate is 5.6 percent, or 8.7 million people.
Although the great urban exodus hasn’t played out as some had expected, with such large portions of the workforce in the nation’s largest cities now free to roam the country in search of cheaper housing or however they please, it seems likely many of them will.
Where will they go?
Salviati thinks the emerging tech hubs are a good bet, but so is Boise, ID where Salviati said rents have increased by nearly 30 percent year over year.
“Which is kind of insane,” he admits, before noting the city’s easy access to nature coupled with the conveniences of a medium-sized metro and its affordable housing. “These are probably the types of places that I would expect to have a bit of a boom related to remote work.”