This topic has been one discussed by political leaders, community and economic developers, Chamber's, educators and many for years. So is there truth to this topic? First, do ALL the kids go away, never to return? And, do the "kids" who do go away to college, really find that the grass "IS" greener in new pastures?
Let's take, for a moment, a look down memory lane to see what my generation has to say about this. For myself, I know my class of 23 high school seniors - the class of 1988 - in a very small central Nebraska community, were all eager to graduate and LEAVE our small town, which we perceived, lacked all opportunities. So how much validity is there to that statement? Or were there other social or environmental issues influencing this desire?
For me, more than anything, I think it was a desire to "find myself" and not have 'every neighbor snooping or other parent watching my every move'. I dated the same young man all through high school and he was two years older, so I was ready to get out into the world and "become an adult". Although, I also know then and even today, the first thing a person says to a young person in general conversation is "where are you going to college" or "where are you going after high school graduation". It is "implied" that you have to leave to become something else. For those that replied they will be staying to work on the family farm or to apprentice under a mechanic or other service-skilled laborer, we tended to look down on them, thinking they won't amount to what they could if they "go away and explore the opportunities".
Well, working in economic development, I have witnessed and participated in this conceptual focus to intentionally strive to "invite our kids back", or "find a way to keep them from leaving at all". This past week, I had the opportunity to hear about Ben Winchester, Research Fellow with the University of MN Extension, share his research from his "Rewriting the rural narrative" work.
Ben explained to those attending the National Rural Economic Developers Association conference that throughout the country rural communities are seeing an increase in populations 30 to 49 years old. And, when they are “out migrating” from larger communities, they are bringing their spouse and children aged 10 to 17 with them. He noted that "we are" losing the majority of the high school graduates to higher education communities -- which he defined as logical. College graduates are enjoying their freedoms in the larger communities as they begin their career pathways. Ben suggests, “Losing young people age 20-24 is the rule, not the exception!” But is that really bad news?
His research indicates metropolitan and micro-politan areas are losing population for the cohort group ages 30 to 49 because they are moving to less populated areas for "quality of life reasons". Based on the Buffalo Commons Research conducted by Randy Cantrell from the University of Nebraska, the main reasons for moving out of populated areas were completely unrelated to employment. In fact, the reason this group is relocating to one of the greatest declining populated areas is: 1) slower pace of life, 2) greater sense of safety and 3) lower cost of housing. This trend for rural communities has been happening for many years without any concerted effort to recruit or attract them.
It is also worth noting this population group of people age 30-49 who are moving to the rural areas, generally leave their careers behind and are underemployed in their current situation. Yet they are happy because “Quality of Life” is their trump card. Minnesota and Nebraska statistics for this group show: 36% of these folks have lived in their rural location previously; 68% (MN) 40% (NE) have a bachelor’s degree; 67% (MN) 48% (NE) have household incomes over $50K; and 51% (MN) 43% (NE) have children in their household.
Studies by the Pew Research Center show that 51% of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area or small town. So how can political leaders, community and economic developers take advantage of this information? Should the topic of political and economic discussions revolve around "job creation", "recruiting big industry", "infrastructure development", and "youth retention efforts" or should we instead be focusing on what our current residents say makes our communities "feel good", the quality of place amenities for those who choose to stay or return?...And, might we also think ahead (long-range planning) to building and advancing the infrastructure that supports mobile technology to support entrepreneurship and/or tele-commuting?
Is it worth our time to help current businesses begin to transition their operations to other family members or key employees? Do educational institutions and employers providing experiential learning environments offer more opportunities for kids to better plan or gain skills to fill skilled labor jobs or for ongoing educational pursuits?
All in all, our communities are made up of all the skills, knowledge, expertise, passion and connections we each bring to "our environments". So go out and learn what you can, but bring it back so grandma's and grandpa's can spend their retiring days spoiling and being present with their grand children!
To learn more about this topic, follow the work of Randy Cantrell and Ben Winchester.