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Remote Work Has Wealthy Americans Moving Again

May 11, 2021
  • The COVID pandemic has sparked a rebound in residential migration: survey data suggest that 16 percent of American workers moved between April 2020 and April 2021, up from 14 percent in 2019 and the first increase in migration in over a decade.
  • The largest jump in residential migration took place among high-income households earning over $150,000, who for the last decade have actually been the least likely to move.
  • One of the major drivers in this trend is remote work, which expanded greatly in response to COVID and will remain prevalent even after the pandemic wanes. No longer tethered to a physical job site, remote workers were 53 percent more likely to move this past year than on-site workers.
  • With flexible, high-wage jobs, wealthy movers in 2020 were more likely to move further from job centers in order to buy homes, enjoy more physical space, and live in places with lower cost-of-living.

Residential Mobility Has Been Declining For Decades, Until Now

According to the Census Bureau, the United States’ annual mover rate (the percentage of people who change residence each year) had been declining since the mid-1980s, and reached its lowest point just before the COVID-19 pandemic.1 This trend may have continued if not for the sudden and rapid adoption of remote work. Remote work was gaining popularity before COVID,2 but the pandemic accelerated the trend. Our latest research shows that even after the pandemic subsides, the economy will contain significantly more remote jobs than ever before. And this newfound flexibility is getting people moving again.

To understand these new dynamics, we analyze data from Apartment List’s recent remote work survey,3 in which we asked full-time workers about changes to their working and living arrangements since the start of the pandemic. We contextualize the results by comparing them to analogous census data from years prior. We find a major spike in residential migration during the 12 months since April 2020, particularly among higher-income workers4 who have historically been least likely to move but now (thanks to the remote work revolution) are moving in droves.

High-Earners Have Long Been The Least Likely To Move

Not all Americans move at the same rate; some socioeconomic strata move more than others. Data from the Census Bureau show a strong inverse relationship between moving and income: lower-earners move more frequently than higher-earners. In 2010 the mover rate was 27 percent among workers living in households earning less than $25,000 and only 9 percent for those in households earning $150,000 or more.

mig v income

But over time, this relationship has weakened. Since 2010 as the national moving rate slowed, the drop has been concentrated in lower-income workers. Wealthier Americans, on the other hand, are now moving more frequently. One driver is that over this same time period high-earners are increasingly choosing to rent instead of own homes, providing more moving flexibility.5 And more broadly, the fact that younger and wealthier Americans are delaying other major life events that typically coincide with settling down in a permanent location could be a factor here. The longer someone goes without buying a house, getting married, or having children, the more flexibility they will have to move.

COVID Encouraged A Jump In Residential Migration, Especially among High-Wage & Remote Workers

2020 is the year that residential migration bounced back, in a big way. Our survey tells of major spikes at both ends of the income spectrum, suggesting that pandemic-related disruptions to low- and high-paying jobs are at the root of this pivot.

mobility income

Last year, our team discussed how the nascent COVID pandemic would disproportionately burden lower-wage workers. This may have contributed to the higher mobility we see today, as low-earners facing income insecurity move in search of more affordable living arrangements. Within households earning less than $25,000 annually, 28 percent in our survey moved between April 2020 and April 2021, higher than the annual mover rate in that bracket in each of the last ten years.

At the other end of the income distribution, our survey uncovers a dramatic surge in high-income moves, accelerating the trend that had been simmering for the past decade. In households making over $150,000 annually, 16 percent of workers moved in the past year, a 39 percent increase above the Census Bureau’s estimate in 2019. Slightly down the income distribution, a similar but less dramatic increase took place among households earning between $100,000 and $150,000.

Remote work is catalyzing this new wave of residential mobility. No longer tied by work to any specific city, remote workers earn higher wages6 and can take those wages across the country in search of desirable housing. Specifically among the remote workers in the highest income bracket, the one-year mover rate jumps to 20 percent, more than twice that of on-site workers earning similar wages. But the effect is felt across the income distribution. Even within lower-wage households, mobility is greater among those with remote flexibility than those without.

remote mobility 2020

Leveraging higher pay and greater mobility, the types of moves made by wealthier workers look different than those earning lower wages. If we compare movers from six-figure households to movers from households earning less than $50,000, the higher-income group was

  • twice as likely to purchase a home (34 v. 17 percent),
  • more likely to move to a market that is more affordable (26 v. 15 percent),
  • more likely to move further from their job (24 v. 12 percent),
  • and more likely to have gained additional physical space (33 v. 22 percent). By increasing the distance between home and work, these households were able to make other housing goals a reality without sacrificing their high-paying jobs.

Conclusion: Remote Work Will Have A Lasting Impact

Should remote work stick (as our survey respondents suggest it will), it will be a feature of the post-pandemic economy that promotes more residential migration. Over half of the workers in our survey said that despite the pandemic they continue to work on-site, whether it be at an office, a school, a store, or some other physical location. We asked this group if going remote would encourage them to move, and nearly 48 percent said that it would. This year’s burst of moving activity has already created wild swings in the cost of housing across the country. Additional moves have the potential to further redistribute wealth if high-paying jobs are no longer concentrated in the nation’s largest, most expensive cities.

  1. The latest national mover rate (9.3 percent) is among all people aged 1+. Our charts in this report show higher mover rates because we restrict the census data to full-time workers aged 18+, to be consistent with the population in our April 2021 Remote Work Survey.
  2. The United States' telecommuter population increased 76% from 2005-2017. Source: Traffic, Trains, or Teleconference? The Changing American Commute
  3. Our survey was conducted from April 9-10, 2021 and administered in collaboration with SurveyMonkey. We collected responses from over 5,000 Americans who are currently employed full-time, and our sample is representative of the U.S. population along the dimensions of gender and age.
  4. The spike in residential migration is strongest among workers who live in households that earn over $100,000 annually.
  5. From 2008 to 2017, the number of six-figure-income renters in America grew 48 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Source: Rich and Renting: Understanding the Surge of High-Income Renters.
  6. The median wage for a remote-friendly job is $59,000, 64 percent higher than the median wage for jobs that are not remote-friendly ($36,000). Source: Remote Work Revolution Gives Rise to a New "Untethered Class".

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Rob Warnock
Rob is a senior research associate at Apartment List, where he examines trends in the housing and rental markets. Previously he worked in public health policy, and before that, graduated from UCLA with a degree in Globalization. Read More
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