Six months ago, “Paul” was hired as a physician specialist for a top-notch, regional medical center. Even though he is already seeing a heavy case load of patients, Paul’s acclimation to the work culture has been smooth, and his work experience has been nothing short of spectacular. Overall, Paul feels like the medical center is in alignment with his passion, interests and skills—a professional environment that he would like to call home for the foreseeable future.

However, Paul is experiencing a sense of angst with one aspect of his life: his lack of fondness for the geographic region he lives in. Residing in a suburban condo quite a distance from his work, Paul is less than thrilled with the 30-minute, high-stress commute he endures twice a day, every day. In tracking his expenses, he found that his combined transportation and housing costs represent 63% of his take-home budget, hardly what he envisioned for his first professional job. His family is 1,500 miles away, and the surrounding area offers few activities for young singles and outdoor enthusiasts—two components topping his lifestyle list. While Paul’s professional life is trending upward, his personal life is headed south.

Paul’s dilemma is now common ground for many Americans: namely, the importance of aligning career aspirations with geographical choices. Regrettably this idea runs counter to traditional approaches, which dictate that a person’s career be viewed in a vacuum, disconnected from lifestyle aspects that bring meaning and fulfillment to our life. Consequently many of us fall prey to a “live to work” philosophy that leaves us unfulfilled across the broader spectrum of life.

Unlocking the delicate balance between career and lifestyle involves an intentional commitment to engaging these two elements from a holistic perspective. It requires an honest assessment of personal interests, with the goal being an alignment across lifestyle and geographic options. This unblinking appraisal should include a realistic salary and cost of living factors, which dictate the core essence of livability.

Sadly, many Americans’ lifestyle expectations are unsustainable. The prospect of tighter budgets means that career and geographical options must be considered even more carefully. Weighing the pros of cons of career options becomes critical for determining which geographical choice allows the most efficient use of personal spending resources. In short, your income should closely counterbalance the cost of living variables in any given region.

Several recent studies conducted by the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Workforce Housing suggest that a typical household spends upward of 60% on housing and transportation costs. This underscores why where you live is important in managing personal finances. Factors such as public transportation, bicycle-friendly options, and walkability provide cost-effective options for   commuting to work and desired recreational amenities. And while home ownership remains a cornerstone of the quintessential American Dream, the freedom of not having to endure the pressure of a mortgage and property upkeep should be given consideration. Renting may soon evolve into the new normal as growing numbers of professionals seek the inherent flexibility that this option provides.

Additional elements in determining an ideal location include leisure interests, climate, community safety, and schools. Economic vitality is a critical component in terms of good paying jobs and desired professional opportunities.

Despite the current economic barometer of high unemployment rates, rising home foreclosures, and stagnant wages, many areas of the U.S. continue to fare well during this downturn. According to the Milken Institute’s Best Performing Cities 2010 report, which  identifies the best cities nationally for creating and sustaining jobs, Texas’s metro areas snagged five of the top-ten spots: (1) Killean-Temple-Ft Hood (2) Austin-Round Rock (4) McAllen- Endenburg-Mission (9) El Paso (10) Houston-Sugarland-Baytown. Huntsville, AL, an emerging high-tech manufacturing hub in the South was ranked third. And Anchorage, AK, rose to 8th, after achieving a prior slot of 40 on the 2009 rankings.

In this economy, many job seekers may be tempted to point the moving truck toward cities with hot employment prospects; however, a wiser approach would be to measure these locations against a predetermined lifestyle standpoint.

Recent economic studies suggest that our nation’s business expansion is trending toward smaller metro markets, many of which are anchored by colleges and universities, health care organizations, and flight-accessible airports. Rarely mentioned Sioux Falls is among these types of cities, boasting a low unemployment rate and no state income tax. Being situated on the I-90 corridor, a major interstate connecting Boston and Seattle, also bodes well for its future economic development fortunes.

College town locales, such as Iowa City, IA, Morgan Town, WV, and College Station, TX, also are faring well in terms of job markets and quality of life.

Austin, another college town, has emerged as a destination of choice for many young professionals attracted by the city’s healthy economy, sense of community, reasonable cost of living, and hip live music scene. On the flip side, the area does not bode particularly well if a person is seeking proximity to winter sports such as skiing, or has a disdain for hot, humid summer weather. Then there is a city like Boise, which boasts an emerging high-tech economy, community-oriented values, low housing costs, and a strong university presence. It also has a surprisingly vibrant nightlife in its downtown corridor that has become quite popular with the younger crowd. Here’s the caution for those who may be considering a move from a big city: Boise lacks the sophistication and social and cultural amenities commonly found in larger metropolitan areas.

Urban critic Joel Kotkin touts the growing numbers of Americans that continue to espouse the benefits of smaller “edge” and rural communities. This trend is supported by a recent “Best Places for Jobs” survey developed by the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The results showed that the top employment centers are increasingly sprouting up in smaller locales like Sioux Falls, Jacksonville, NC and Bismarck, ND.

What about relocating to an area for lifestyle gains? In some cases, extended family considerations come into play. Or it could be a desire to return to one’s hometown. Interest is growing in make a career or lifestyle move to rural settings—places where real estate and health care are more affordable. This, however, can mean significant lifestyle changes if one is accustomed to a big city.

For the Millennial crowd, the boundary lines have expanded even further as growing numbers of Gen-Yers consider various life/work opportunities domestically as well as internationally. With their fervent “work to live” mantra, they are attracted to employment-dense locales that support compressed work weeks, reasonable work hours, flexible schedules and professional development opportunities. This group has an entrepreneurial spirit and a propensity for business start-ups, coffee houses, co-working sites and other “third places,”–highly desired settings for this demographic cohort.

As many Americans continue their downward financial spiral in tandem with the stagnant economy, decisions on where to live will gain equal footing with what career to pursue. This involuntary financial course correction will force us to reevaluate the self-indulgent mindset that has dominated our nation’s ethos. Smarter, more sustainable lifestyle options will become the norm.

The path from here to there will require more thoughtful choices on how to become better stewards of our time and money. But it’s a journey worth taking, because the modalities of place are a powerful factor in the equation of career and life satisfaction.

Michael Scott is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity

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