By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — “Massachusetts has always been a place that tends to lose more population than we gain,” said Tim Reardon of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. And after a decade of growth, in 2021, the pandemic seemed to revive that population-loss pattern.

According to a report from United Van Lines, Massachusetts had 16% more people moving out of state than in. Even Rhode Island does better. Only Connecticut and New York among the six bordering states fare worse.

What’s driving folks away? While the vaunted Massachusetts lifestyle was cited by 12% of those moving in, 17% of those who moved out saw a better quality of life elsewhere. And the cost of living remains a deal-breaker for many.

“We’ve continued to see increases in housing costs both for sale and rental housing,” said Reardon. “And those are the results of decades of underproduction of housing.”

So if you can go to a place with a better climate and a lower cost of living and do your job from there – as the pandemic has shown us is possible – why would you stay here?

“That’s true and there are certainly gonna be some jobs that move to all remote,” said Reardon. But most experts believe some degree of return to office life is likely.

And along with the familiar concerns about better housing and transit, Reardon said we can lure back the workers of tomorrow by making it easier to prosper here.

“The flexibility for entrepreneurs to build spaces, to try out new business models, it’s often very difficult, it takes a long time to get licenses and permits, to open a new business. And I think what we’ve found is we need to be more flexible.”

COVID-19 has definitely scrambled population movement trends, and experts believe the exodus could end when the pandemic does. No one thinks Massachusetts will ever compete with the big gainers in the United Van Lines survey – the Carolinas, Florida, and other states to the South and West – when it comes to warm weather and low taxes. But we can compete with the one thing we do have in abundance (beyond pro sports titles) – the brains to drive technological and economic innovation, and the smarts to learn and incorporate the social and economic lessons of the pandemic.

Jon Keller