Home > Stories > Sarah O’Neill

‘How I quit Toronto and found small-town balance…. without tanking my career.

 

Gritty old neighbourhoods have been reinvigorated with soaring condos. Gentrification—lauded by some, derided by others—has transformed streets such as Roncesvalles, Ossington and Queen East and West into seven-figure residential destinations.

Tens of thousands of young Xennials, Millennials and Generation Zs have flocked to an urban hotbed that their parents largely sought to escape in the 1970s and 80s as they streamed out to suburbs such as Milton, Mississauga, Pickering and Vaughan. They left in search of a leafy backyard, a detached home, parkland and easy access to the local mall. Their car-centric lives and desire for added space made downtown living obsolete. Their kids returned in search of walkability, public transportation, a greener lifestyle and close proximity to shops, bars and the idyll of fast-paced urban bliss.

I happily joined the influx of young professionals into one of the world’s great city centres. Having grown up in Scarborough, I longed for the chance to live the downtown lifestyle. After earning my degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, and getting a taste of small-town life, I couldn’t wait for my chance to embrace condo living, steps away from edgy bars, chic shops and tantalizing restaurants.

I took a position as a management consultant at one of the Big Four professional services firms, found a posh condo near Queen’s Quay and Spadina, and settled in to my new life. Then, after two exhilarating but exhausting years, I decided to quit Toronto for good.

What I realized is there is a life—with ample career opportunities—outside the big city. You just have to be willing to explore with an open mind.

A great city, but not for me

How dramatic was my decision?

I gave up a penthouse with a great view. I left the promise of a bright future with a top employer. And I did it because I wanted something more. I yearned to live in a less transient community. In downtown Toronto, as in many great world cities, people come and go. Friendships can be challenging to make and maintain. I wanted to pass people on the street and say ‘hello’ without them wondering if I was deranged or about to steal their wallet.

I wanted to quit a cutthroat business world where getting ahead often means stepping on someone else’s head on the way up the corporate ladder. I craved less competition for resources, greater work-life balance with less concrete when I looked out my window. Surely there was a place where a hard day’s work didn’t demand I give up all of my free time?

In short, I longed for a more balanced lifestyle, where I could buy a house without the worry of spending my life mired deep in debt. The challenge, I quickly determined, wasn’t simply leaving the city—it’s figuring out how to bring your career (and potentially that of your spouse) with you.

Small town living beckons

My journey out of the GTA started with a year-long stop in Whitby. My husband was raised there when it was a sleepy, quasi-rural community. How times have changed.

Whitby is now a city of strip malls, housing developments and sleepy-eyed GO Train commuters. I tried to be one of them, but quickly learned that the hour-long daily commute into the city was both mind-numbing and a waste of precious time. There was so much I wanted to do, but the active lifestyle options are few while crammed into a hard-plastic and synthetic fibre seat trying your best not to make eye contact or play elbow wars over tiny armrests with your train neighbours.

Then one day my husband and I decided we’d had enough. The prefab sameness of Whitby wasn’t working for us. We began considering options—Alberta, B.C., the Yukon! All had the active element, but were a little too far from our family in Ontario. Then there was that pesky career issue—as in, not wanting to torpedo mine just to support my hiking and biking habit.

We combed the map of Ontario before landing a pin on Collingwood. The four-season resort town of 23,000 about two hours north of Toronto was home to some of our distant family, so I knew the landscape. Skiing in winter, hiking, swimming and mountain biking in summer. It offers many amenities that Toronto has including many great restaurants and multiple breweries. And it was close enough to the city that we could visit old friends on weekends if we decided we needed a short-but-sweet big-city fix. In fact, it’s possible to get there in nearly the same amount of time that it takes to drive to Toronto from Whitby when traffic is at its worst.

We started doing research on the town, its demographics, real estate prices, career options—you name it. It turned out to be a fit for my electrician husband, who could easily find work in the booming local construction industry or start his own business (he chose the latter, establishing Maple Electric Company based out of Collingwood). But what about me?

What I discovered was a community brimming with opportunity, eager to attract knowledge-economy professionals. In fact, the area is emerging as a tech and engineering hub with firms specializing in areas such as mining, green energy and clean water technology. I studied civil engineering in university before going the management consulting route, so I applied for and accepted a management position with Crozier and Associates, a growing firm with a head office in Collingwood and additional offices in downtown Toronto, Bradford and Milton.

The lesson here is that there are many communities across Ontario eager to attract talent and build out their knowledge economy bona fides as they transition away from industries such as manufacturing. Coming out of university, I assumed that the GTA was the only place to build a meaningful, well-paying career with opportunities for advancement. I was wrong.

In Collingwood’s case, the town has recently launched an initiative dubbed Live More Now (www.livemorenow.ca) to attract knowledge-economy professionals in search of better work-life balance. They’re following the lead of a plethora of communities across the U.S. that in recent years have developed concerted, sustained efforts to transition their local economies.

The best advice I can give to other young professionals is to open your minds to the opportunities available across the province. Wages can be comparable, the day-to-day cost of living is similar to the GTA, but housing is infinitely more affordable and you can live, rather than just earning a living. My daily commute is now five minutes long, at most. There are many opportunities for advancement and eventual ownership in the firm and my husband’s business is thriving. In winter I can be on a local ski hill in fifteen minutes, or on a paddleboard on Georgian Bay in seven minutes (yes, I’ve timed it) from my front door.

Small town living isn’t for everyone, but those that crave a lifestyle change should know that they have options. It is possible to quit Toronto and still build a thriving career. You just need to spend time searching for the right community to turn your desire for balance into a reality.