London is a spectacularly beautiful city, it’s fascinating and wonderful, a metro full of an amazing richness in every possible way. It is a joy to live in, an enchanted group of towns and villages that meander together. I feel blessed to get a chance to live here, but in all honesty if the specific measure is “quality of life” it suffers, it suffers badly, London is a hard place to really live.
There are of course many viewpoints on this but I want to strictly address the specific question about “quality of life” (as someone who tries to live a month at a time in each city, and now currently based full time in New York City). The reality is that as nice as a good art scene is or how good the beer is or how late shops open, the central core of life comes down to everyday economics and the things that surround you most often. A big TV won’t make you happy, but damp smelling clothes, unexpected parking charges for $350 or not having a garden soon will make you UNHAPPY.
This viewpoint makes me seem to be a hard core consumerist but I’m merely trying to reflect the every day circumstances that we live in.does an INCREDIBLY good job of articulating all the obvious and insightful differences, but I want to get into the nitty gritty about how everyday life feels.
Some quality of life criteria to consider.
Public spaces and infrastructure
Shopping, dining and entertainment
Culture and the arts
Social scene and dating…
I don’t have a perfectly symmetrical life in both cities, so I am not comparing like with like, in New York I have younger, more ambitious, more outgoing friends. It then becomes hard to separate what parts of my lifestyle are the luck of who I happen to have met in each city, and what parts are reflecting the differences that are inherent to each city and the way it shapes people and who it draws in.
Another huge preface is the degree that personal, financial and family circumstances alter things massively.
I have absolutely no doubt that for the very very poor, London is a far “better” place. The very poor in London will receive free housing, free benefits for looking for work, they will never freeze to death in apartments struggling to cope with extreme cold in the winter, they will not worry about their sons being killed joining gangs, or that a fall down the stairs could bankrupt themselves. They won’t ever have the paralysing stress of just keeping alive.
Similarly, for the rich, those earning more than a few million a year, New York is a world of luxury and quality way beyond what’s possible in London unless you are a Saudi Prince, Russian Oligarch or Business magnate. For the rather rich in New York, you’re able to enjoy very low personal taxation rates with crafty accountants, you can own spectacular property on Long Island and cruise to work along pretty fast flowing roads driven in a snazzy Escalade by your personal driver. In New York even those with just a few $m can take advantage of Private jets to get winter sun in Miami, or play golf on incredible courses less than an hour away from Manhattan.
Rich in London doesn’t taste the same, it’s snooty clubs and nice cars, but it’s a long way from MTV cribs houses with present wrapping rooms and a long driveway. Many of the rich in London still ride the tube, get to work on rush hour trains, there are no helicopters or seaplanes to a beachside property in the Hampton’s, for the everyday rich in London it’s unlikely to be a private jet to Nice but a long car ride to Cornwall or a scheduled BA flight to the Med. Don’t get me wrong, London is a great place to be and your wealth won’t curtail your happiness, but it’s not the life from movies, heck even to be like the typical Brit in “Notting Hill” or “Love Actually” would mean family wealth or a ultra high flying job.
For me my time in New York is far more exciting than for those that have called NYC home for a while, because I’ve been to every single European capital and I find the Medieval bridge, big river, coffee shops in city square to be less exciting now. Put me in a dive bar in Philadelphia, a Hooters in Tallahasse, let me stay in a crazy Airbnb property in Maine and I’ll likely enjoy myself more, only because it’s way more novel.
Related – Tom’s 48 hr guide to New York City.
So onto the answer.
I’m going to be basing this on a person who is about 25-45, has a top Graduate degree, works in a commercial field but is not in any way an outlier. They don’t work in a Investment Bank, they don’t have family money, but neither do they work for a charity or as a Nurse. This person is an Architect, Accountant, Engineer, Advertising Exec, PR, Middle Manager, that sort of thing.
On this basis I think New York offers a much greater quality of life. This is why.
1 They earn more.
I think for a start that person most likely earns more in New York, the median income of central London is about £35,000 ( which using long term exchange rate norms is about $50k) and in Manhattan it’s $67K.
2 They are more in control of their income.
New Yorkers seem to suffer from massive instability in their work but it also seems that it’s way easier to make rapid career progress and way easier to attract far larger sums of money. For those who seek to make more than £100k in London in a normal career, you’re looking at finding a way to become a statistical outlier. The National newspapers frequently have images of public figures running billion pound organizations who have the audacity to earn more than £120k a year.
And when ( but only when) you reach these heights, your income tax will be much much lower in New York. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest if I stay in New York for the next 3 years, my take home pay would likely be 2-3 times more than if I stayed in London due to the combination of these forces.
3 Most luxury things are cheaper.
Continuing the highly consumerist angle.
Imagine all the things you may want for your comfy life, you want nice furniture, a big tv, a sporty car to rent at the weekends. You want to get a round of drinks at 3am, stumble into a taxi home. You may want a weekend break in a nice hotel, to own a property outside the city, you may want a fancy gym to join or a personal trainer.
All of these things are WAY cheaper in New York.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like everything is that way, but all of the things that are the luxuries and that make you feel alive and rewarded are always harder to justify in London.
Sure your milk is cheaper, your eggs are half price, the cell phone is cheaper, the cable package the same, but every single thing in London that makes you feel alive is a luxury.
The sporty car for the weekend is 5 times the price and 1/3rd the power, the posh gym is double.
The taxi home is 3 times more. The luxury hotel you just booked has tiny rooms, weird old furniture and the staff are incompetent.
Somehow in London you just get used to not expecting much. You are constantly aware that you need to reduce your expectations or become a misery.
4 You will spend more on rent, but you will live in a nicer place.
One of the big costs of New York living is rent, it’s not that places cost more, it’s that the city collectively places more judgement on where you should live. Much like the low expectations you condition yourself to in London with luxury items, you do the same in property.
All Londoners are obsessed with the idea of owning a house, so unless you are one of the many people who are here for a few years you will likely be spending your lower disposable income on a much more basic place to allow you to save money towards a deposit. Similarly the typical London transplant will be living in a fairly basic place in order to put their money towards really embracing what London has to offer, including frequent trips to Europe.
As a result, Londoners often live a quite considerable distance away from work, a commute of a walk is virtually unknown in London and common in New York.Londoners often live in furnished places which makes them much easier to move in and out of, but the quality of the furniture is atrocious, with flea bitten mattresses and IKEA based environments, with the occasional waft of damp.
Londoners also embrace the flatshare more. In London renters suffer from being liable for the property tax, having to pay much larger amounts of electricity and energy, resulting in even the most basic apartment having fixed costs of perhaps $450 per month. London also does not really do studios and those it offers are generally for Business people to work in the city a few nights a week and very expensive serviced units. As a result even the most successful young professional will live in a flatshare before being married. This makes life much cheaper than the millions in New York who cripple themselves living alone in their Manhattan studios, but these Londoners paying sensible amounts are waking up in the pretty nasty apartments, to share a fridge and try to grab a time in the shower, before another hard working professional runs off to their busy day a 45 min journey away.
London living never feels glamorous.
5 You won’t be saving to buy a horrible house or for being old
New Yorkers are allowed to spend money! There is this feeling in New York that it’s a place to milk while you can. New Yorkers are optimists, always thinking they will earn ever more and spend accordingly. New Yorkers seem to embrace this by forgetting about savings plans, pensions, denying the need to save for a house, they can deal with this later. Thus New Yorkers seem to have more fun. They take up suggestions for skiing trips, they embrace the 4am extra cocktail, they just seem to live freer, more fun, less sustainable lives.
6 You will have more sunshine.
I won’t add to the many posts that exist on this, but London has extremely grey, boring, particularly rainy weather. This makes everyone rather depressed and stressed about the weather. If you miss a sunny day because you were at work or hungover, you feel a sense of FOMO. New York has such extreme, interesting, short term predictable weather. It may rain like hell over the weekend but you knew about it 4 days ago and it’s got it all over and done with.
7 You will have people around you that make you happier.
It’s the weather, it’s the cost of living, it’s the low wages, it’s the Tory’s, it’s the immigrants, it’s those on benefits, it’s the shitty music, it’s British reserve, it’s the recession, it’s the culture, it’s everything, but British people are not happy. British people greet with a how are you and the most positive permissible answer is “not too bad”.
Don’t get me wrong, New Yorker’s live up to the cliches, they all accept a certain degree of insanity to their life, you will find plenty of xanaxed up, therapy seeking, stressed out, fed up, impatient, misanthropic arseholes. The city makes people hard, people judgmental, people in a hurry. There is more than a fair share of people with no time for anyone, who use friendships, who are not remotely reliable.
But if you want to make “friends” and have fun, New York is way easier. English friendships are way stronger bonds, but they happen over an age and they happen infrequently.
I’d rather be invited clubbing by smiley strangers and have them dump me at 2am because I wasn’t cool enough, than suffer 6 months of small talk before being told one day I may get to visit them in their house.
8 You will be surrounded by healthier, more energetic people.
New Yorkers do stuff. They are happy to spend money, happy to take risks, happy to make the most from life. They are healthier, fitter, livelier, they are generally ( cue the comments building up) way more attractive in every sense. Dating as a guy in London from my memories ( maybe things have changed) is a depressing mix of those that are angry, depressed, worried, introverted, fat, judgemental and frustrated.
Dating in New York is a world until itself, it’s a more competitive game, it’s full of people ever looking to trade up like a game of top trumps and it’s hard to get commitment in a city where people take dating to be a semi-permanent lifestyle. Accepting these faults, New York is still a city full of women with more vigor, more confidence, more fun, more optimism and are way more lively and passionate about things.
9 You will be able to move to the suburbs and enjoy more.
One of the weird things about London is that for those that are not very poor or very rich, there is a certain inevitability that you need to move out of the city at some point. It’s simply impossible with house prices to ever imagine finding a way to be happy in central London. A passable centralish London house costs over £1m, will still give you the stress of perhaps needing to spend tens of thousands of pounds on school fees and you will still be struggling to find a car parking space each night, worried about the noisy people next door and won’t have air conditioning or heating that works.
As a result of the inevitable fact £1m houses are not possible for most, the city has a never ending sense of people moving far out. The commuter belt in London is so vast that this often means a one hour train ride ( at a cost of £6-7,000 per year) and all to still live in a vastly expensive town with fairly nasty property.
New York is different, those that want to find a family house and settle down have an amazing variety of ways to do this, they can move out to somewhere very central, relatively cheap and live in a big house in an area like Woodside and still commute via a 20 min subway line. They can embrace a beach life, suffer a long subway commute but enjoy the ocean air and a massive house in a place like the Rockaways. If they really want the sort of suburban life, they can find a nice area on Long Island and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle simply not possible in the UK.
So in summary, London is a truly amazing place, it tantalizes, it’s magical, but it’s an abusive relationship. People here seek out a meagre life on the edges of it, they exist on a diet of low sunshine, school paranoia, snatched moments of delight, social awkwardness, bad pub burgers, vast sums of alcohol, small TV’s in dark tiny lounges, pasty faces, rainy barbeques, bad 1950’s architecture and made claustrophobic by small dreams. Not that the British care, for most of us this is all we know, this is all we ever cared about and the glimpse of hazy sunshine reflected in economical hatchback.
In some way’s America may be about the measurable things and London wins on all the vastly important but intangibles. There is an abundance of interest and beauty, a rich tapestry of woven history, there are moments of delight as well as horror, a cultural richness, there is an intelligence to the media, there is a robustness to relationships, there is a great sense of coming from a nation that is fair, where people do the right thing and where the poor are generally looked after.
But by any mathematical measure of day to day living I think New York wins in many many more ways.
This version has been edited from the full version on Quora.