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.