Three years ago Emma Baker was living a fast-paced life in Sydney, working in the fashion industry and thinking of buying a tiny apartment in the city.
Now she lives on an eight-hectare patch of land outside Mudgee, in central western NSW, nestled among hills, surrounded by fruit trees and complete with a veggie patch.
“There are things I’ve learnt since moving out here that I never in a million years would’ve thought I could do,” Ms Baker told AAP.
“I can easily hook up pumps to dams and transfer water and drive a tractor.
“It’s things like that that make me go, ‘What? In Sydney I couldn’t even drive a manual and now I’m driving a tractor?’”
Ms Baker, 28, and her husband moved to Mudgee in 2020, part of an enormous cohort of millennials who’ve left the capitals in the last five years.
A landmark report by the Regional Australia Institute reveals the dramatic shift, and calls for a population plan to ensure housing, education and health can meet the demand.
The Big Movers study, released on Monday, examined Census data from 2016 and 2021, finding net migration from the cities almost tripled in that period compared to the previous five years.
People aged between 25 and 39 led the charge as regions experienced a net gain of 57, 252 Millennials, compared to a net loss between 2011 and 2016.
“For so many years we’ve heard stories about young people … leaving the country to undergo further study and take up jobs in the cities, never to return, but today we can debunk that myth,” the institute’s chief executive Liz Ritchie said.
“This data shows there’s been a remarkable turnaround during the last Census.”
People born overseas also flocked to the regions, with double the net migration from that group.
Ms Ritchie said the two sections of Australia’s population tended to be educated and highly-skilled, boosting the potential of the bush.
“Their desire to live in regional Australia can partly be attributed to the strong jobs market in country areas, as well as the enviable lifestyle benefits – like the reduced cost of living and more space.”
Most tree changers left Sydney and Melbourne, while Darwin and Hobart also experienced losses to the regions for the first time.
The study emphasised the need for investment in infrastructure to ensure regional Australia “can thrive and take its rightful place in our country’s history”, Ms Ritchie said.
Ms Baker, now a mother to a young daughter, said greater affordability helped her realise long-held ambitions of country living and opening her own fashion and homewares store.
Good Day Lifestyle Co has added a burst of colour to an old music hall in Mudgee’s town centre, embraced by locals and visitors.
“If we were still in Sydney I’m sure we’d love the life we’d have, but it would be so different.
“Moving out here and having the support of a small community makes us feel like we can do it and really give it a go.”
(Australian Associated Press)