When I first moved back to London, after a couple of years spent living in the leafy quietness of Northern England, I experienced culture shock. I was born and brought up in the megacity, and I had never found it intimidating. But now, I saw it with fresh eyes, eyes that had seen what life could be like elsewhere.
The pace of life is unbearable, bordering on unsustainable. Everybody is always in a rush, often at the expense of their own and others’ wellbeing. Always worried about making ends meet, however high up they may be in their career ladder. And the population of the city is due to exceed to nine million by 2021.
That is the collective experience of Londoners.
But, Londoners are increasingly shunning this way of life, turning their backs on the smog and crowds, quite literally for greener pastures. According to official statistics, there are now more people leaving London than there are arriving, and the vast majority of those leaving are in the 18-30s age bracket.
Speaking to those who were either thinking of leaving London, or had already left, it was rarely one factor that pushed them to make the decision. Rather, it was a combination of strenuous situations.
Anthea Morris, a qualified accountant, and business owner, relocated to Newcastle despite her parents being in London, stating that she “had a good job, and a car, and much higher quality of life as I spent less time commuting,” all of which are luxuries on even the best salaries in London.
The UK is already one of the worst places in Western Europe for work-life balance; the power of unions is simply much higher in France and Germany. Work-life balance goes beyond time spent in the office. Commuting times in London are on average 74 minutes one-way, and they are only getting longer despite more transport options and ever-increasing transport efficiency.
As if the length of the commute was not uncomfortable enough, the recent heatwave also dismantled the London transport system, with temperatures on the London Underground reaching an eye-watering 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit). The impacts of climate change are acutely felt in London, due to the densely packed nature of the city.
The concrete and tarmac absorb more heat, creating an Urban Heat Island – you can sometimes feel the heat of London hitting you when your train from another part of the country pulls into the station, even in the dead of winter. Climate and heat-induced maladies and deaths have risen in London, and the heat is due to worsen to the point that the city experiences droughts.
And unsurprisingly, despite speculation that Brexit would bring prices down, the cost of living -or surviving – in London is skyrocketing. The proportion of one’s pay that is dedicated to necessities is much higher in London, leaving little room for savings.
The average salary in the UK is £22,000, and the average salary in London is £34,000. But in comparison to the next biggest city, Manchester, necessities such as rent, childcare and utilities are often disproportionately higher in the Capital – there is sometimes a 50% differential in price for the same thing, which shows the extent to which the London tax hits consumers.
It is perhaps a no-brainer that so many young people are choosing to build a future for themselves and their children outside of the city.
Richard Brown, Research Director at the Centre of London, agrees, pressing that “in the years after the financial crisis, many people in this age group were unable to access mortgages, inside or outside the capital.”
This financial inaccessibility also has physical and psychological repercussions for an individual’s health and wellbeing. If London has become a city for the elite, what happens to the lower social classes? Louise Graham, Founder and Business Mentor at Breakthrough with Louise, felt “suffocated” by London. “I lived in leafy Primrose Hill and thought I lived in a peaceful area until I arrived back in Glasgow with my ears still ringing from London.”
The United Kingdom is a relatively small and well-connected nation, and young people are taking the opportunity to explore life outside of the capital. “One of the most popular destinations for millennials leaving the capital is the commuter belt, where people may be able to find more space more affordable, while still being able to work in the capital,” says Richard Brown, “At the same time, many are moving to other UK cities, as their economies grow.”
This trend of leaving the megacity dream behind is certainly not unique to London. Lack of affordable housing and ‘burn-out’ are stated as reasons that people are leaving New York City and surrounding suburbs. The Japanese government is offering a reward to those who willingly move out of Tokyo, a situation that arose due to dangerous levels of overcrowding in the city. Canadians are abandoning Toronto for cheaper parts of the Ontario state.
By the nature of how they are historically built and grown, cities all over the world become economic breeding grounds, gradually phasing out those of low-incomes. This financial inaccessibility, that often comes in the form of gentrification of poorer neighborhoods, is becoming one of the primary reasons for young people not seeing a future in London.
This social trend of de-urbanization has unknown ramifications for megacities. It will still be a while before there is a tangible population deficit, and perhaps in the medium-term, this will only ease pressure on public services.
In the long-run, as the London bubble bursts, property prices may fall and we may see a resurgence of people coming into the city all over again. But we also run the risk of the population never rising again, public and private services seeing a drastic drop in demand, and London becoming a shadow of its former self.