Millennials Are Coming to America’s Small Towns

Liz Farmer

Smithsburg, MD

On a Saturday afternoon in late September, I observed my 6-year-old son repeatedly doing two things we’ve always told him not to do: run into the street and pick up candy off the ground. We were watching the annual tractor parade roll down Main Street here, inhaling the festive atmosphere along with a fair amount of diesel fumes. The parade features more than 100 steam- and gas-engine tractors (most of them with riders tossing candy) and is the highlight of Smithsburg’s annual Steam Engine and Craft Show.

In this town of about 3,000, the weekend of the fair is a big deal. It draws visitors from all around Maryland’s Washington and Frederick counties. This was only the second year we’ve gone to the parade. Last year we barely knew anyone. This year we ran into more than a half-dozen people we knew through school or youth sports. Some were simply friends we’ve made in the community. One of them invited us to watch the parade on her front porch. As we left that evening for the five-minute drive home through mostly farmland and woods, I smiled and thought, “This is why we moved here.”

For the fourth consecutive year, U.S. census figures have shown that thousands of millennials and younger Gen Xers are leaving big cities. Since 2014 an average of about 30,000 residents between 25 and 39 have left big cities annually. My husband and I left Washington, D.C., for the suburbs more than a decade ago because of affordability issues. Now I believe we’re in the next new trend of workers with mobile jobs: moving to a small town to improve our quality of life.

According to a survey by the freelance marketplace Upwork Inc., people who freelance or have jobs they can take with them are more likely to move out of urban job centers to places that cater to their lifestyles. It’s one of the reasons places like Boise, Idaho, and Charlotte, N.C., are seeing faster population growth than most big cities. When we packed up and headed for farm country 70 miles outside Washington, my husband and I took our son, cat and jobs with us.

Raising a small child in a major metro area can be grueling. Paying for child care is like taking out a second mortgage. Weekend activities often require far more planning than they’re worth. Any parent knows that leaving the house with an obstinate toddler requires reserves of emotional strength. Add the near-certainty of hitting traffic, struggling to find parking, and waiting in long lines, and each trip requires a stockpile of fortitude.

When it came time to leave the city, our priorities were simple: We wanted to live in a town with good schools and in a house on a lot 3 acres or larger. My husband and I were both able to work from home four days a week, so we cast a wide net around the Washington area.

That’s how we ended up here. We now live in a house that could swallow our old house whole, with acreage to spread out and start long-talked-about projects. We’ve acquired pigs, chickens and, most recently, a puppy. We live next door to a winery with owners our age and whose property we can stroll to on paths cut through fields. Our other neighbors have a herd of goats from which we have a 5-gallon bucket of frozen milk. My fall project is to learn how to make goat-milk soap.

The seasons actually change here. The mountainsides are awash in fall colors. In the winter, the snow creates a quiet, white blanket over the land and stays around to be enjoyed instead of melting into dirty sidewalk slush. In the spring and summer, the fields come to life again and we marvel at how fast the corn grows. Once people get here, the speed and intensity of city life loses its hold over them.

Of course, we’ve had to make adjustments. Washington County is a conservative and rural part of Maryland, so we’ve traded cultural diversity for economic diversity. Eighty percent of the population (including us) is non-Hispanic white. Nearly 14% live in poverty, a rate almost twice that of our old suburb.

There have been lifestyle trade-offs, too. Eating at a good restaurant now requires a 30-minute drive. But going apple picking is something we do at an orchard on the way home from school. I miss being able to walk to our neighborhood playground or the nearby yogurt shop. But I love ambling around our property here, or driving to the local creamery and watching my son play with school friends on its playground.

Perhaps most important, we have psychological as well as physical space. I don’t wonder if I’ll find a parking spot at the grocery store or movie theater. I don’t reflexively check for traffic unless I’m getting on a highway. While playing in our backyard, I don’t feel hemmed in by trees and roof lines. I look up and feel the wide expanse of the open sky.

Before we moved, it had been years since I’d been to a parade. In crowded cities, they’re a pain. Who wants to deal with the hassle of parking and the crush of people trying to leave when it’s over? As children in pre-tech-boom Mountain View, Calif., my sister and I walked from our house to the main drag to watch the small parades the city would host. We often marched in the annual Halloween costume parade. In my memory, parades are simple and fun—a reason for a community to get together.

Living here, I’ve found that again.

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Source: Housing Trends Feed