Why Millennials (Like Me) Are Leaving Big Cities and Moving Back Home

Zina Kumok

When my husband and I first visited Denver, we instantly knew we wanted to live there. We found a neighborhood we loved and spent the weekend exploring the shops, parks, and restaurants. Once we started apartment hunting, we found a place in our favorite neighborhood. It felt like fate.

Having grown up in the Midwest, relocating to a growing city nestled in the mountains with progressive laws and budding neighborhoods full of stuff to do felt like a step up. While we both loved Indianapolis and our friends and family there, we jumped on the chance to make the change. I was sure I’d be in it for the long haul.

Now, just a few years later, we’re back in Indianapolis. But this isn’t a woeful tale of not being able to hack it away from our hometown. I’m happy with my choice to go back to my sleepy Midwestern city—and I’m not alone.

We’ve all heard for years that millennials are flocking to cities, pushing out locals in favor of artisanal mayo shops and organic coffee bars. Some of that is true. Almost everyone I grew up with moved or had plans to move to bigger cities. And many of the people I met in Denver had relocated there from smaller towns. But that isn’t the whole story.

Millennials aren’t just heading to big cities—they’re heading to small ones, too. A recent report by the Brookings Institution found Colorado Springs, Colorado; San Antonio, Texas; and Denver all topped the list for an increase in millennials between 2000 and 2015. Other midsized cities like Provo-Orem, Utah; Madison, Wisconsin; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana have some of the largest millennial populations.

And then there’s the turnover. While tech booms and mass appeal are still drawing people into the bigger and better-known U.S. cities, just as many millennials seem to be leaving. Take Austin, for example: The city seems to be swelling. Thousands move into the metropolitan area every year. But almost as many are moving out. In 2014, about 7 percent of Austin’s residents moved out, and 8 percent were newcomers. In Denver, 9 percent moved out between 2014 and 2015. At the same time, almost 10 percent of the city’s population was new, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The week that my husband and I moved back to Indianapolis from Denver, we met three people who had recently relocated from other cities. All of them cited the same reason: cost.

What’s happening in many cities is that millennials are moving in, finding that their jobs aren’t paying enough to comfortably afford the rising cost of living (let alone buy a home and achieve any other major milestones), and then moving out.

In our case, we had planned on renting for a while so we could save up to buy our first home. But right away, housing was one of our biggest obstacles. Of course, I knew that trying to find a place to live in one of the hottest markets in the country meant I was going to have to change my idea of affordable living, but the sticker shock was very real. In Indianapolis we had been paying $530 in rent. In Denver, we budgeted $1,000 per month, but ended up paying closer to $1,300.

The longer I lived there, the more stories I heard from locals that indicated Denver’s glory days were long gone. I talked to so many people who remembered what Denver was like five or 10 years ago, when traffic was minimal, and you could find a one-bedroom apartment for $600.

Buying a home would have been an even bigger impossibility for us. In June 2018, the Denver Metro Association of Realtors revealed that the average single-family home price for the area had gone up to $523,255, an 11 percent increase from the year prior.

Denver-area real estate agent and local resident Daniel Mackin says he sympathizes with people who feel forced to leave.

“If I hadn’t bought my first property at the age of 22 when the market was still in a bit of a slump, it’s quite likely I would have considered leaving too,” he says.

Mackin notes that unless you’re working in Denver’s booming tech scene, you’re not making enough to justify living there. “Incomes in the area that aren’t related to the tech industry have struggled to keep up with the increased cost of living,” he says. “I have met and worked with multiple people who are still considering other markets due to affordability.”

My husband and I both worked from home, so while we had some income flexibility, we still felt cash strapped every month and couldn’t see an end in sight. And we weren’t alone. In the last few years, friends that have moved to Seattle or the Bay Area mostly ended up moving back to the Midwest like we did, unable to find good-paying jobs in those supposedly booming markets.

In the end, we both loved Denver, but we also knew we wanted to move on in life. I’d like to own a home one day, and we’d both like to keep working remotely. And then there was the personal element of it all—when you spend the majority of your day working remotely, it can be hard to make new friends. It doesn’t matter how cool your city is if you have no one to share it with. We missed our friends and family back home. So, we packed up, and we left.

Now that I’m back, a lot of people have asked me why we decided to return. “Denver’s so much cooler,” they tell me. And there’s some truth to that. Denver is a very cool place to live. As, I’m sure, are Austin, San Francisco, and Seattle. But feeling financially comfortable and surrounded by people I know well is a pretty cool feeling, too.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned to Denver for a wedding. We got to see some old friends, drive past our old neighborhood, and revel in the mountain air. Did I enjoy being back? Yes. Do I regret leaving? No. I’m where I want to be.