The Future of Work and Cities: Will More People Live in Cities than Today? – A Fictitious Look Back

gray rocks on seashore during sunset

In 2035, the statistical office of an advanced economy publishes the latest statistics on the number of inhabitants in cities and rural areas.  For the first time in a long time, the trend often referred to as “urban flight,” which began in the 2020s, is turning around. The proportion of the population living in agglomerations is increasing again, but remains below the level of the 2020s. Many commentators predict that by 2050, significantly more people will be living in cities. In an interview, however, one expert says with a slight smile that a well-known think tank had already been clearly wrong with similar forecasts almost fifteen years ago and that one should therefore be careful with such predictions.

2020 and 2021 marked a turning point worldwide: the corona pandemic had left a lasting mark on people at the time, severely restricting the possibilities for physical exchange for a time and thus leading to a digitalization push in many areas. And even if the measures to curb the pandemic remained temporary – many new behaviors were permanent: Work from home, for example, remained widespread even after the pandemic had subsided.  Proximity to nature had also become more important.  During the lockdown, everyday life had been more pleasant for those who had more living space and lived close to green spaces. Thanks to more work from home, life in the countryside not only became more compatible with working life, but also appeared more relaxed and family-friendly. In addition, already high rent and real estate prices had skyrocketed during the pandemic, which was particularly noticeable in urban centers. As a result, more and more people not only moved to medium-sized towns, but also discovered small villages in remote regions as places to live and work.

Especially among young and urban people and families, it became more and more fashionable to live entirely in the countryside.  Until then, they had mostly opted to live in cities because of the more attractive leisure activities on offer or the better availability of childcare. Rural areas, however, became more and more attractive in this respect due to social innovations. A life in the countryside was soon no longer considered old fashioned but contemporary and, thanks to digital work options from home, also ecological.

Even though more and more people opted for a life in the countryside, it still never became a trend that the majority of people followed. Living in urban agglomerations remained the dominant way of life and most social, cultural and economic activity still took place in urban areas.

The rich and well-educated enjoyed the best of the two worlds. Often, these people had two or even three residences in the countryside and in the city, each of which they spent about equal amounts of time in for both work and leisure purposes. These people were often able to work in hybrid jobs and combined living in spacious apartments or houses in city centers with houses on a lake, by the sea or in mountainous areas. Middle-income people also exhibited similar behavior, living in both smaller apartments in cities and larger homes in the countryside. Low-income people were forced to live in agglomerations close to work more often than others because of their jobs, which were often less amenable to work from home. Overall, the change in people’s behavior led to a much greater demand for housing. A brisk construction activity emerged, which was slowed only briefly even by interim interest rate rises and price corrections.

By the early 2030s, however, there were signs that the trends shown were leveling off. In the meantime, many people living in rural areas had often taken on several jobs that they did exclusively from home.  However, working purely from home meant that these people were now increasingly competing in the labor market with people from other countries. Stress was therefore high and wages developed sluggishly. Privileged in this respect were those people who worked hybrid both from home and in a business office. They were more difficult to replace and had more social contacts. There was greater resentment of these people because they took up a lot of housing in good locations, both in the countryside and in the city, driving up prices. In some cases, their apartments in inner cities were unoccupied for long periods, so that certain cities feared becoming dormitory towns.

More and more people felt uncomfortable in the countryside amid expensive mansions and stressed home workers who seemed to have little time for social contacts or nature. The allure of the new, which had still dominated in the mid-2020s, slowly waned and the cities developed more appeal again. More and more pioneers tried to breathe new life into the increasingly sleepy-looking city districts and agglomerations. They benefited from the fact that housing costs in these places had become relatively low. The dense coexistence in the city, as well as various innovative housing projects, encouraged exchange and the development of new ideas.

So in 2035, cities are facing a renewed boom with their historic old towns and the coming together of different people. However, we are still a long way from the very high proportion of people living in cities that the think tank predicted in 2021.

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