Like I Was Saying

When the Makers and Doers Leave

Telecommuters are spreading from ski towns and lake towns to all the cities that dot this region

By Kellyn Brown

The nation grew at the slowest rate since its founding between 2020 and 2021, according to numbers recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the number of Americans moving to Montana is accelerating 

Over the last year, the population of the United States grew by just 392,665 people, or 0.1%, with the tepid pace attributed to decreases in both migration and fertility and an increase in mortalities due partially to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s stunted growth, however, hasn’t slowed the number of moving trucks heading our way. 

Our local population grew by 1.7% over the last year, or by about 18,000 people. That’s tied with Utah for the second-fastest rate in the country, behind only Idaho, which grew by an astonishing 2.9% in that time.  

The Mountain West continues to lure remote workers from other states and a question many of our communities are grappling with is: How are they all going to fit? And another: Who are they going replace?

The answer to that first question is: They won’t. At least not really. Right now, the law of supply and demand is too unbalanced. Way more people want to live, at least part-time, in Montana than there are available units to house them. Which is why a modest local home is fetching nearly $500,000 and a McMansion about $1 million. 

So now, onto the second question and the consequences of the Great American Migration. Those priced out of the region and replaced are many of those who actually make things, whether it’s timber or espressos, or do things, like sell gear or guide fishing trips. They’re the makers and doers who are key to the country’s and Montana’s economy, which relies heavily on service-industry spending to remain healthy. 

That’s not to say those arriving here and spending their working hours telecommuting in front of a computer screen don’t make or do anything. They do, but it’s a bit more abstract. And their sweat equity is often contributing to a faraway corporation paying taxes to a faraway state. It’s difficult to measure how much less the increasing number of remote workers contribute to their respective local economies, but it is most certainly less than their counterparts. 

And because so many of them came from places where $1 million is the going rate for a middle-class home and they are at once paid like they still live in that place, a lot of the makers and doers can’t compete. And therein lies the rub, which has resulted in many brick-and-mortar businesses reducing their hours or services as they struggle to find employees to fill traditional jobs with more traditional wages. Demand for those employees far outweighs supply.

They are being replaced by people who have always wanted to relocate to a more rural area with a more relaxed lifestyle but never could. That is, until the pandemic allowed millions of Americans to stop going to the office, making them free to live wherever they please. 

The short-term consequences of that are most acutely felt in the Mountain West — in places like Utah and Idaho and our own backyard. Now telecommuters are spreading from ski towns and lake towns to all the cities that dot this region. And if nothing changes, a question we may see answered in 2022: What does a community look like when all the makers and doers leave?