Jamie McAinsh lives 10 minutes from his office. His kids, two young boys, go to school just around the corner.
All of these are within minutes to white sandy beaches and busy cafes that rival any you’d find in Sydney or Melbourne. McAinsh even has ocean views from his office window.
“One of the best things about working here has got to be the view,” he says.
Before moving to the South Coast seven years ago, he and his wife Bella lived in Dubai. Both were immersed in the corporate world of a multinational ad agency while raising their young family, but something was missing.
“We wanted [our children] to grow up in an area that was more conducive to outdoor living and nearer to family,” McAinsh says.
He also wanted connection – to community, to nature – and the desirable work-life balance that many parents crave. A sea change was on the cards.
Once the prerogative of retirees, a growing number of young families and Millennials are choosing life on the coast or in the bush.
The Big Movers: Population Mobility in Australia report revealed that Sydney lost more Millennials to the regions than it gained between 2011-16, identifying the Gold Coast and Newcastle as emerging hotspots.
This younger demographic is changing the shape of regional villages and towns as we know it, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the trend.
With more opportunities to work from home, the need to live close to work with good public transport is reduced. More of us can now take our jobs with us and reap the benefits of regional life.
There is a good side and a bad side to this movement of people away from big cities. As Dr Tony Matthews, senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Griffith University, says, population growth creates critical mass.
“If you’ve got a higher critical mass, you have a better case for more social services and for more social opportunities,” he says.
A better nightlife and urban redevelopment projects could also emerge, injecting more energy into tired towns where local businesses are struggling.
But one downside is housing supply. Locals who have spent their entire lives in the area may be pushed out as prices go up.
“Housing is not cheap generally in coastal areas anyway, so it could get a lot more expensive,” says Dr Matthews.
Ideally, sea-changers should look for an area with good average income and low median house prices. But, looking at Regional Australia Institute’s online tool, this is a rare combination in coastal towns.
This was the reality for Sarah Berry when she relocated to Byron Bay with her partner in 2017. Expecting more affordable housing, she found little difference to rental prices in Bondi.
The relaxed lifestyle of Byron made up for it. “People say hello to each other in the morning and there’s a sort of slower, friendlier way of living that is really appealing,” she says.
Fortunately, as lifestyle health editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, she could take her job with her.
But four years later, the couple returned to Sydney after the birth of their second child. “With two kids, we became more conscious of the lack of proximity to our families,” she says.
“We’d had this beautiful adventure, the two of us, but we wanted to be near our families and to have that support network. I think a lot of people in Byron move there for the lifestyle but once you’re there, you’re on your own.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a strong feeling of community in regional towns – quite the opposite.
McAinsh found a thriving entrepreneurial community. “People were very welcoming. As well as the business networks, I think having two small children at the local school helped. That’s just a natural place for you to meet people and to start to find friendships,” he says.
“There are so many fascinating people, businesses and entrepreneurs here. I never imagined there would be so many and I’m still discovering new ones regularly.”
While he couldn’t bring his job with him from Dubai, he did bring a wealth of experience and started his own agency, The Marketing Clan.
He knows how important word of mouth is when building a successful business in a small town. “Coming to an area like the Shoalhaven, gaining people’s trust and being actively involved in the local community is essential,” he says.