Before he was laid off by Amazon, Jesse Lindsey was making more money than he ever had in his life working from home in Bozeman, Montana.
After losing his job, the 39-year-old father and Navy veteran found himself stacking boxes at the local Lowe’s. It wasn’t the life he pictured when he moved with his family last summer, giving up a peripatetic Navy life to take a fully remote job as a technical recruiter in the mountain town.
Amazon’s decision to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs, part of the wave of hundreds of thousands of cuts at firms across the US this year, is forcing remote workers like Lindsey to make hard choices.
Leave or stay? Hold out for another highly paid remote gig, or shift to a local job with a lower wage?
These are the questions facing transplants in so-called Zoom towns – dubbed that because of the prevalence of remote workers spending their days on video calls. They are places like Bozeman, Bloomington, Moab and Missoula: beautiful but far from the country’s traditional tech and finance hubs. They boomed during the pandemic, offering remote knowledge workers small-town charms and a chance to make their big-city paychecks go far.
Now, three years after the Covid-era working model began to take shape, new economic realities are challenging it, sending its beneficiaries into uncharted territory once again.
“I tend to think of what happened during Covid as whipping up the past 40 years of urban change on steroids,” says Edward Glaeser, professor and chairman of Harvard University’s economics department and author of the book Triumph of the City. “Zoom meant that people could literally just choose where they wanted to live. So that’s exactly what they did.”
Many relocated to what Glaeser calls “consumer cities,” drawn by the lifestyle rather than the job market. These cities tend to be smaller, with vibrant downtowns that are often connected to local colleges and universities.
Bloomington, Indiana, is one such place. It’s 2,300 miles from Silicon Valley and about 800 miles from Wall Street. But with a small population, large university and blossoming arts scene, it seemed like the ideal place for Charles Pearce to relocate his family.
He, his wife and two children had been renting a three-bedroom apartment in Austin, Texas, where his wife worked in tech and he was earning $75,000 a year as an independent creative director, working on design campaigns for large consumer brands.
The plan was to bring that work to Bloomington. There, for $450,000, the family bought a four-bedroom, four-bathroom home. They moved in June of last year and quickly fell in love with their new life. Everything seemed to cost less, from the kids’ music lessons to rock climbing to dinners out. Plus, it was cool. Maybe even cooler than Austin.
“When I describe Bloomington to people, I say it’s as if Brooklyn wasn’t full of people and was attached to a quiet city,” says Pearce, 40.
But by October, Pearce’s remote work had dried up as companies cut budgets for marketing and advertising in response to growing economic uncertainty. The type of businesses he worked with in Austin didn’t exist in Bloomington.
So Pearce did something he hadn’t done in a long time: He got an in-person job, in town. He had been attending a Meetup group for designers at a tech and entrepreneurial space called The Mill, and connected with the head of marketing there. Within about two weeks, he’d landed a role as a marketing specialist. He took a pay cut to $50,000 but was happy to have a paycheck. Plus, he likes the job.
While it’s difficult to estimate the number of remote workers who have moved to Zoom towns only to face layoffs, the pandemic saw an exodus of people from big cities and a surge in remote work. That was particularly true in the tech industry, which is now slashing jobs.
This presents an opportunity for less glamorous or less capitalized industries that previously could never have competed with the likes of Amazon or Google for top talent.
“Many companies pre-tech layoffs simply could not hire coders so are now dipping into the markets – think companies like John Deere, Walmart,” says Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor who has been studying remote work for decades. It could also “spur the growth of rural entrepreneurship,” he said.
Shannon Milliman highlights both opportunities.
The 42-year-old mother of five relocated from Portland, Oregon, to Florence, Alabama, in 2021. Milliman had a remote job with Amazon paying $120,000 a year, including bonus. In the upheaval of the pandemic, she and her husband wanted a change and started looking on “Zillow, everywhere.” A program called Remote Shoals, offering a cash grant to relocate to northwestern Alabama, tipped the scales in favor of Florence.
They bought a house three times the size of their Portland home. It had twice the mortgage payment, too. But in Florence on a six-figure salary, they could handle it. There was a creek behind their home and Milliman was enchanted with the natural beauty and culture of her new community.
Less enchanting? Losing her job last year.
After receiving help from her new neighbors, she ultimately landed a job as a training manager at a local electrical manufacturing plant. She took a pay cut and has felt some cultural differences between the Deep South and Pacific Northwest. But her employers have allowed her to take on a “four-ten” schedule, which has her working ten hours a day, four days a week.
“It is a little bit tighter on my budget,” she says. “But I feel the breathing room because they are respecting other parts of things I needed, like my life schedule.”
That breathing room has also allowed her to start her own business. More than 5 million businesses were created in the US last year, a 44% increase from 2019, with the sharpest rise in Southern states. Milliman’s new business is called Remembrara and helps people write their or their loved ones’ life stories through a subscription service. She won first place for her idea at a local business-pitch competition.
Stories like Milliman’s align with the view of Glaeser, the Harvard economist, that employees with remote jobs will likely be able to ride out rough patches in the job market. Remote workers tend to be highly skilled, which gives them the ability to adapt.
Lindsey did so in Bozeman. He enjoyed the people at Lowe’s, but it wasn’t the right role for him. He eventually landed a local job as an HR system specialist at a health-care company called Best Practice Medicine. It pays less than his Amazon contract, but he likes working in-person. The job is based in the Life of Montana building, a columned, modernist edifice on a hill off the I-90 freeway.
“It’s super cool because I can show my son,” Lindsey says. “‘See that big building right there on the hill? I work in there.'”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)