How to choose where to live
A framework to help you find a better quality of life
As long as we’ve been here, we’ve been moving around. Leading scientists—and Chemical Brothers—tell us "it began in Africa" and we've been wandering ever since. I grew up in Manchester, but my parents didn't. They jumped on a ferry from Northern Ireland in 1979, heading across the Irish Sea for a promise of a steady job and a better life. Your parents might have done something similar.
Even if they didn't, maybe you did. Perhaps you left home to start university, and relished the ability to start anew. It could have been the promise of a job, unattainable in your hometown, that brought you to the bright lights of the big city: "that London", New York or getting familiar with Karl the Fog. It might have been a blossoming relationship that took you somewhere else—that was what drove my first move, and happy to report that relationship hit 10 years married last week.
It was on that very day I asked this community a simple question: where are you? The response? "Everywhere": Melbourne, Shanghai, Barcelona, Wellington, Tokyo, Singapore, California, Buenos Aires, London, Lisbon, Paris, Mexico, Nashville, to name just a few. For many, this wasn't where you grew up. People have just moved, are thinking about moving, or are questioning where they want to wake up every morning.
It's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about over the past 10 years. I've done three major life moves in that time—Manchester to London, London to San Francisco, and San Francisco to Barcelona. Over this decade-and-a-bit, I've spent hundreds of hours, and spoken to dozens of friends and colleagues, about how we decide where we live.
This week's newsletter is for those of you asking these questions. I want to help you learn from the people who've done this before, and offer a framework for making an objective decision about a topic that feels overwhelming. I've tried to put this together in a way that can help anyone thinking of moving anywhere—it might be to a different continent, another county, or just to the other side of your hometown.
This is my version 1.0 of a simple, unified framework for where to live.
But before we get there, let's dig into why it’s top of mind for so many right now.
Where can I work? And where should I live?
The world has changed. Haven't you heard? To be frank, I'm tired of hearing about it, and can't wait for times to be precedented again. Work has changed too: 41% of workers are considering quitting their jobs or changing professions, finding a new perspective on their career during the pandemic; Scotland is just one of the countries trialling a 4 day work week, with no reduction in compensation; and 80% of workers say that it's easier to complete projects and meet deadlines now they work from home.
This move towards remote working was essential, and many companies have embraced it wholeheartedly—Dropbox, Slack, Twitter and Spotify are just a few of those going fully remote. Ed Zitron has been knocking it out of the park with his writing in this space: how the pandemic has provided us with a chance to focus on our life outside work, and how managers and executives without such a life are driving a "we all need to be back in the office" narrative.
"When there’s nothing to enjoy other than work, you’re only focused on the creation of more money and power, filling an endless pit but telling yourself you’re just one deal or one big milestone from happiness. When you’re constantly on the go, there’s no need to go home, there’s no need to think about your home life, and you expect that same attitude from those you’ve hired and will hire. When all you have is work, you can’t understand those who have more than their work, or want to actually be at home."
— People Want To Work, They Just Don't Want To Work For You
Is remote work here to stay? No one can say for sure. But for many, the genie is out of the bottle and there's no going back. People are already quitting their jobs rather than go back to the office. My pet theory is that over the next 18 months, as managers force parents back into the office against their will, we'll see the best talent move to employers who offer more flexibility—allowing their job to fit around their life, and not the other way around. We're seeing it already: I heard a story last week about a team with three open roles, and all the candidates went somewhere else because there was an imminent "fully back in the office" policy. I'd put a healthy bet on companies looking back on these decisions with regret once their best people start leaving.
"Workers are deeply burnt out and frustrated with their companies; for many, a truly shitty back to the office plan (coupled with a generally good job market) is the last straw. The best thinkers, innovators, and workers will go where their work is valued and their organization makes policy that underlines their trust and respect for their workers, even if that means switching fields entirely."
— Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study
Last March, my Instagram Stories felt like a steady stream of people fleeing San Francisco. There were tales of tech workers buying property in Lake Tahoe, sight unseen, 30% over asking price. Were they hunkering down? Or did their priorities change when they realised they could work from anywhere?
The changing nature of remote work has opened up opportunities previously unimaginable—can you work in one country and live in another? Can you move somewhere with a low cost of living, and only work a few days a week? Sites like Nomad List have been helping "digital nomads" ask these questions for a while. But what was once an option for a lucky few is becoming a tangible possibility for many.
Rather than asking whether remote work is here to stay, the question behind the question becomes one to investigate: if I can work from anywhere, where should me and my family live? If I only need to be in the office 2 days a week, should I keep paying a premium to live in the city? Where in the world might our children the best opportunity? Where would we all be happiest? Where might we find that magical, ineffable thing—a better quality of life— that we're all seeking?
The framework: Towards a unified theory for "where should we live"
Tl;dr: Define what’s important for you family, find a place that sits in the sweet spot.
What makes this tough to codify is that "quality of life" is subjective: what's important for you might not be important for me. What you prioritise is dependent on many factors. Some of it will be baked in your programming from your childhood: what did your parents do? How much did they work? What was going on in the world at that time? Did you live in one place? Did you move around a lot? Your experiences in these early years will drive the type of life you're looking for now: you might prioritise security and safety if it was something lacking in your own childhood, or you might want escape and adventure if it was something you always dreamed of as a kid.
It might be driven by what you've learned as you've grown older: books you've read, conversations with friends, changes in your career path, interesting essays you might have read in newsletters exploring the changing nature of fatherhood:
" I realised what I'd been chasing—get the dream job, climb the ladder, and then ... something else—wasn't what I wanted. That I'd started following the same well worn path that ambitious young men had followed before me, without actually asking "why?"
— You Are Not Your Job
What quality of life means for you, and what quality of life means to me, are almost certainly not the same. There is overlap, of course. You’ll (hopefully) share some of the same priorities as your partner, and you'll find that your friends will have a roughly similar set—it's inevitable as we settle into groups who share the same beliefs and attitudes as we do. But I’ll have criteria that you are less focused on, and vice versa. And that's OK.
So let's breakdown what those things might be.
Part 1. Defining what Quality of Life means to you.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. More like a starter for 10. Task 1: Go through this list and mark down the numbers of those that jump out to you as being most important to you and your family.
Career. Let's start with this, as it's a biggie, and often the driver of a significant move. Where in the world will be best for your career? San Fransciso, London, New York: people are attracted to the cities where head offices are based, where the meatiest roles end up, where it feels like you can make a name for yourself.
Work opportunities. "Hold on," you’re thinking, "isn't that the same as career?" In a way, yes. But it's worth separating them out because there are places in the world that can provide interesting, consistent work that will pay well—but it might not be advancing your "career" in a way that will stroke your ego and make your LinkedIn more impressive. Only you will know the real difference between these, and which is a priority to you.
Job Security. Another work-related one. It was more important for our parent's generation who looked for a job for life. But maybe you grew up in a family without this, and see it as a main focus in what you can provide for your children. Security can also be a confidence in what's waiting for you when you arrive somewhere new. Did a close family member blaze the trail before you, and gave you confidence things would be better there? That’s why my parents ended up choosing Manchester.
Income. How much can you earn? How well do companies pay there? Is there a chance to strike it super rich with a startup? But it's more than how big the number is, because of ...
Cost of living. What does it cost to live there? To rent a house big enough for a family? To go out for dinner? How much of your monthly income will go on expenses? And how much money do you need to live a the kind of lifestyle you want? Money isn't simply how much you earn: it's how financially secure you feel. When we lived in San Francisco we earned more money on paper than any other time in our life. But at the end of every month, we were noticeably worse off than when we lived in London.
Climate. A criteria that is subjective in itself. Do you want to be somewhere with seasons? Warm summers and mild winters? Or glorious sunshine for 9 months of the year, even if it gets a little too hot in the middle of them? Do you even care enough about the weather to drive you to move? Pick your poison, and make sure you pack the right clothes.
Proximity to friends and family. How far away are your loved ones? How easy is it to see them? There's a direct correlation between distance of your immediate family and how often they can help out with you when you need it—the occasional school run, or taking the kids for a day when you need a break. You might not want to be too close—near enough for an easy sitter, but far enough to avoid the "we were just in the neighbourhood" drop-in. Your friends will play a big part too: raising children takes a village, and when you're far from family it's your friends that become a support function. And having kids for your kids to play with always helps.
Home ownership. Are you clamouring to get on the property ladder? Is owning a home a significant part of your vision for your family? For many in the US and UK this is non-negotiable: "An Englishman's home is his castle", and a place of one's own is a cornerstone of the American Dream. But in France and Germany, where tenant's rights are much stronger, and there's less of a social anathema around renting, it's less of a concern.
Politics / progressiveness / diversity. Are there enough people there that look, sound and think like you? I appreciate this is a lot to wrap up all in one bullet point, as it's so important and covers such a wide range of factors: gender, race, religion, sexual preference and more. For those who are not straight white cis men, this will place high up your list. It boils down to a single question: How will the cultural norms of this place influence and impact my family?
Culture + hobbies. What's the nightlife like there? How is the food? Are there good museums, and do you have to pay for them? Are there fun off-road cycling routes? Will my favourite band(s) go on tour there? What about the coffee scene? Is there a beach to surf? Or slopes to ski? In short—for the things that I like, what's this place like for them?
Community. What are people like there? Is there a good sense of camaraderie? Do strangers stop to say hello to each other on the street? Does everyone look out for one another? You might find these things important. You might, on the other hand, just want to be left well alone, to do a Bon Iver and head out to a cabin in the woods, or go completely off grid like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. Each to their own!
Public transport / infrastructure / non-drivability. How close is the airport? Is it well connected? How is the public transport system? Will you need to buy a car? Is the city bicycle friendly? I have a friend here in Barcelona who moved from LA. He said the number one improvement to his quality of life is that he didn't need a car anymore, and he can't imagine ever going back.
Taxes. Do you want to live in Monaco? I sure as hell don't. But for some, tax benefits are so important that it'll drive their choice of location. Even if you a tax haven isn’t on the cards, the ex-pat benefits of place like Amsterdam or Lisbon are attractive, and coupled with a lower cost of living can mean having a better life and working less.
Education. How are the schools? What's the dominant pedagogy, and what kind of alternatives are supported? Will I have to pay or pray to get my kid into a good school?
Healthcare. Important for many, especially those leaving the US. What's the healthcare system like, and can you access it? What's the cost of private healthcare, and how are the providers? Hopefully this is something you'll never need to use, but some will have health concerns that put this high up the list.
More space. This could be inside or outside. It could be a back garden if you don't have one. It could be access to big parks and places to spend the weekend walking if you want your kids to be able to enjoy more time int the great outdoors.
Like I said, this is a starting list. I'm sure there are others too. Let me know in the comments anything you'd add to it.
Part 2: Building your own Quality of Life Model
Alright. So you've gone through the list, and you've marked up the ones that are most important for you. Task 2: Whittle that long list down to your Top 3 (You can have four, at a push.) If you're doing this with a significant other, you need to compare each of your long lists, and try decide on a joint Top 3. Then, start to map them into a model.
Task 3: Start to place potential places to live into your model:
Draw a Venn diagram on a piece of paper
Mark each circle with the number of one of your top three Quality of Life criteria
Write down all the places that you've ever talked about living, or the shortlist of where you're thinking about moving, and put them in the right place on the Venn.
See if you can find a place that sits in the sweet spot of all three circles.
Move there, I guess? (I only said I'd help you choose where to live, not how to move there, and this issue is hella long already.)
Part 3. A little insight into how we did it
Back in 2018, when I left Google and we said goodbye to our life in San Francisco, where to live was our number one topic of conversation. We agonised about the decision. Any family that have had to move for any reason—an incredible job opportunity, to be closer to family, or to just let rip and see what happens—will have done the same.
We'd left SF knowing that career was no longer a top priority for us. Our top 3 quality of life elements at this time were (and continue to be)
Climate. We wanted good weather, all year round, so our family could be outside the majority of the time.
Proximity to family and friends. California to the UK was a 10 hour fight, and the jet lag meant it was something you wouldn't do with kids on a regular basis. So we wanted to be closer to family.
Culture + Hobbies. That third one would have been work opportunities, but working as an independent consultant made this less of a priority. So we wanted to make sure we ended up somewhere culturally rich that would help us feel creatively inspired.
Then we started talking about all the places we’d thought about living.
Amsterdam was good early contender. But whilst it sat well in the Proximity to Family / Culture + Hobbies (2 hours on a plane from the UK, many interesting things going on), it was a no-go on climate—we couldn't deal with all that rain. And as hard as it was to say goodbye to the idea of Berghain on your doorstep, Berlin's winters put it in the same place.
Also on the list was Bali. Oh Bali. Cost of living? Few other places better, anywhere in the world. Climate? A little too humid sometimes, but preferable for us than cold winters. Hobbies? Best place in the world to surf, and no shortage of great food. But it's oh so far from family. 17 hours on a plane, with no direct flights to the UK. Coupled with worries about extreme weather events, we began to look elsewhere.
Heading back to London became a front runner. It's one of the (if not the number one) world’s cultural capitals. Huge "big C Career" opportunities there. So many friends that we miss so much. And only a few hours in the car to either set of families. The weather isn't great, but summers there are wonderful.
But in the end we couldn't shake the idea of Barcelona. What's the difference in 2.5 hours in the car, and 2.5 hours on a plane, really? It's cheaper to fly to Manchester from Barcelona than it is to take a train there from London. We'd spent so many good times there during our early days together—I had a role at Google that brought me and a "+1" to Sonar and Primavera a few years in a row, so it was already filled with great memories.
So that was it. We moved to Barcelona in January 2019. We've been here for almost 3 years. We did it before Brexit. It'd be way tougher to do it today. Of course, it's not perfect. Nowhere ever is. It's all a trade off. But—knowing what's important to us—there's nowhere we could be right now that would make us happier.
A few caveats ...
If you're still here, after almost 4,000 words, bravo! I hope this is helpful to you. Before I wrap this up I want to share a few caveats. I am thinking of this as a V1, and am inviting your feedback on it. I want to make sure this framework can work for as many people as possible. So please get in touch if you see any glaring errors or blindspots. Here's a few on my radar already:
Choosing where to live is a privilege that isn’t available to everyone. Moving house is expensive, and there are many who can't. Those who co-parent will be be bound to where they currently reside. Some may be caring for older relatives, or have a need for care for themselves or their child that prevents them moving.
One thing I haven't touched on here is the social impact of these decisions. Gentrification continues to be a huge debate in San Franscisco, as well as other major cities. The density of cities continues to grow, with more people wanting to live in them than space is available. This is an unresolved problem, and movement of people contributes to it.
One thing to call out is the ridiculous double standards around what we call people who move to another country. If you're white or wealthy, you're an ex-pat. If not, you're an immigrant. The Guardian had a good piece on this a few years ago.
Moving is a very emotionally charged topic for some people. There are those whose ancestors were moved—against their will—and have made lives in a place they never wished to be. They have created a connection to the place they are in because their previous history was erased, or taken from them. Others were forced out of lands they had inhabited for generations.
Remember, that whilst these decisions are important, you're not wed to them forever. You can move again. Your priorities will change. Ours did. But knowing what's a priority to you today, and what location best serves them, will help you make this decision.
Finally, if you think a worksheet for this would be useful, drop a note in the comments, and if there's enough of you who want one then I'll put it together.
Thanks to Scott Paterson and Gareth Kay for helping to improve this essay, and the dozens of you who I’ve helped me figure this out over the last few years. A special thank you to Sejal Parekh who not only helped with this essay but has also been the perfect person to enjoy these adventures with.
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