SYDNEY – For years, Ms Emma Baker, a fashion designer in Sydney, and her chef husband toyed with the prospect of leaving the bustling, increasingly unaffordable city and going to live in regional areas.
The couple, who lived in an inner-city Sydney suburb, were attracted to the idea of a life without the congestion and soaring house prices of Australia’s most populous city, but they did little about it until the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first lockdown in Sydney in 2020, Ms Baker recalled, “really spurred us on”.
The couple went looking for homes in Mudgee, a town of about 12,000 residents about 260km north-west of Sydney, and ended up buying the first home they inspected.
They have now lived in Mudgee for three years – and have a 20-month-old daughter – and have no intention of returning to Sydney.
“We looked at Mudgee because it had a thriving food and arts scene,” she told The Straits Times. “It is a small town, but it still has a metropolitan lifestyle that suits our interests. It’s just beautiful, and it is still an easy drive from Sydney.”
Since living in Mudgee, Ms Baker, 28, has opened a fashion, homewares and art shop.
Her husband James Wilson, 34, worked as a chef for two years but moved to the mining industry after having their child because he “wanted to be home for dinners”.
“We had always dreamt of moving to the country. It was something we talked about for quite a long time, but it was always down the track,” Ms Baker said. “Now, we can’t imagine leaving Mudgee.”
But the experience of Ms Baker and her family is far from unique.
For decades, young Australians tended to flow from rural areas to the major cities, which offered much better opportunities for work and education.
But this trend has now reversed, sparked by the soaring costs of living in major cities as well as the pandemic.
Analysis of the most recent census in 2021 by the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), an independent think-tank, found that regional areas received a net influx of 57,252 millennials – aged 25 to 39 years old – from the cities in the five years to 2021.
This compared with a net outflow of 37,179 millennials to capital cities from 2011 to 2016.
RAI’s chief executive Liz Ritchie said there had been a growing interest among younger Australians in relocating to regional areas in recent years, but the pandemic had “supercharged that desire to move”.
“It (the pandemic) has given them permission to realise their dream to live and work where they love, to spend more time with their families and less time commuting,” she told The Australian newspaper.
“We think this won’t be a Covid-19 blip, but an ongoing trend. People want more time, more space, more connection to other people and to live where it’s more affordable.”
According to the institute, there has also been an increase in foreign migrants leaving the major cities.
Regional areas received a net gain of 42,543 overseas-born residents from 2016 to 2021, compared with a gain of 19,191 overseas-born residents from 2011 to 2016.
Younger and overseas-born people tend to be particularly mobile because they are less likely to have established work, housing or family commitments in specific locations.
But the option of leaving the city has been enhanced by growing job opportunities in regional areas.
Research released earlier in 2023 by the RAI examined job vacancies and found that they had grown three times faster in regional areas than in cities.
The most in-demand jobs in regional areas are for doctors and nurses. There is also strong demand for call centre workers, receptionists, carers of children, the elderly and disabled, and engineers and trade workers who maintain and repair vehicles.
The growth of jobs and opportunities in regional areas marks a welcome development for state and federal governments in Australia, which have long struggled to try to encourage younger and early-career residents to move outside the major cities, where property prices are soaring and there is increasing pressure on services such as transport and hospitals.
Ms Baker said the decision to start a life outside the city had enabled her and her husband to be able to afford a spacious property and to seek new opportunities with their careers.
“I don’t think I would have opened up my business if I hadn’t moved out here,” she said.
“We love the sense of community that is out here, and the opportunities that are out here. It’s our home.”
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