Remote Workers Becoming Even More Remote

February 2, 2024 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

A post-pandemic persistence of employees working from home is fueling the continuing population shift to rural counties on the outskirts of the state’s metropolitan areas, according to  2023 Virginia county and city population estimates  released Monday by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

The exodus seems to be connected to the increase in workers who spend at least some portions of their workweeks toiling at home.

“The explosion in remote work during the pandemic and its persistence since then is shaping up to be the most impactful demographic trend since expansion of suburbs and exurbs after World War II,” said Hamilton Lombard, estimates program manager for the Demographics Research Group at the Weldon Cooper Center.

“Over the past century, most population growth was concentrated within commuting distance of major employment centers, such as Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The large amount of work now done remotely – a third of all workdays in 2023 – is helping shift growth much further away from major employment centers.”

But while figures show people moving from Northern Virginia and other urban centers, high mortality rates related to the pandemic and a historically aging population are masking the influx of new residents in nearly 75% of Virginia’s rural counties, the study shows.

Middlesex County, located on the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay, has attracted new residents at a similar rate as Frederick County, one of the state’s fastest-growing counties. But the study shows Middlesex’s population has only grown 1% since 2020 because it had more deaths than births and migrants.

Related Story

Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia
Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia

“There is a lot of migration into the less-populated, more rural counties, but they still have high death rates. So when you look at migration, and then you look at the deaths, there’s sort of a disconnect,” Lombard said. “They see more people moving in, but they aren’t seeing an actual increase in population – yet.”

Big Change Ahead?

Lombard said remote work could reshape the state’s population trends similar to “the cataclysmic demographic shift that Virginia experienced during post-war suburbanization” in the 20th century.

According to the study released this week, migration from Northern Virginia helped Winchester become Virginia’s fastest-growing metro area. The population increased at nearly five times the rate of Virginia as a whole.

Migration also contributed to a historic influx of new residents to rural counties circling Richmond. The four fastest-growing counties in Virginia in this decade are New Kent, Goochland, Louisa and Caroline, all in or adjacent to the Richmond metro area.

Decades of migration into the Richmond area and weak growth in western Virginia means the number of residents in the Richmond metropolitan area may soon surpass Virginia’s population living west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That would be for the first time since before the American Revolution, Lombard said.

Closer to Grounds, Albemarle County saw a 3.3% increase in population with 3,753 people moving into the county in 2023. Of that number, 3,393 were migrants moving into town from other locations.

Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest locality, continued to experience population decline due to out-migration in 2023. Loudoun County was once Virginia’s fastest-growing locality – it is still its wealthiest – but last year only an estimated 11 people moved into the county than left it. A decade ago, Loudoun County attracted nearly 10,000 more residents each year than moved out.

The migration is mostly a redistribution of Virginians and not from people moving in from out of state, according to the study. Between 2022 and 2023, population in both Virginia and the U.S. grew by less than half a percentage point.

“For Virginia, this is the slowest it has grown since the Civil War,” Lombard said. “For years, there has been a statewide decline in births and the population has been aging, so we’ve been heading in this direction for quite some time.”

Population in Migration


 

Components of Population Change for Virginia Counties and Cities, 2020-2023 A color coded map of Virginia, broken up by county and independent cities, that illustrates population changes over the last 3 years, breaking it down births minus deaths and net migration.
  • < -2.5%
  • -2.5-0%
  • 0-2.5%
  • 2.5-5%
  • > 5%

Moving On Out

Lombard said other studies show many Virginians are moving out of state and into North Carolina, notably near Raleigh. The ability to work from home, and the costs of living are likely causes.

“Virginia communities that were maybe middle-priced or even a little affordable for housing 20 or 30 years ago are now relatively expensive,” he said. “The math on that is, if you’re in Fairfax, the home cost is about twice that of Raleigh but the salary difference is not that significant at all. If you wanted to stay in Northern Virginia and find housing that was the same price as Raleigh, you’d have to go past Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties to Caroline County.”

That dynamic is in play closer to Grounds. The City of Charlottesville, which surrounds UVA, saw an increased population of 82 people, a 0.2% increase. After adjusting the number for births and deaths during the year, the report shows the city lost 341 people, even though the population figure rose.

“Charlottesville’s slow growth, and having more people moving out than in, is in line with a national trend since the pandemic of more people leaving urban areas, including large areas like D.C. and small like Charlottesville,” Hamilton said. “In areas with fewer new homes being built, such as Charlottesville, we see decline or slower growth as more people move out to find a place of their own.”

The same general pattern of out-migration seen in Northern Virginia is occurring in most of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, indicating a wider demographic shift is taking place, Lombard said. A decline in birthrates also indicates younger people and families are also leaving.

“Arlington has seen the [birth] numbers go down by almost a quarter since 2015 and Fairfax’s has gone down by 15%. Statewide, we’ve seen just a couple percentage points of decline, so when I see such huge declines in areas, I think we’re seeing many families just packing up and moving somewhere else,” Lombard said.

UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service provides nonpartisan, reliable research and leadership training to individuals and entities that serve the public good. The center staff has expertise in public management, demography, economics and public finance, political science, leadership and organizational development, and survey research.

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications