Will The Best & Brightest Return To The Countryside?
There have been recent news stories about those coming and going and possibly returning to life in the countryside.
A couple months ago, the New York Times had a major story about older folks returning to rural life after business careers elsewhere – “A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds”. (Among others, it featured Debra Sloane, a former Cisco colleague.
Then this past weekend, in a kind of counterpoint, the Times’ Sunday Review section had an op-ed article about a woman who tried and gave up on living in the countryside – “Giving Up My Small-Town Fantasy”. While she returned to the city, she also wrote that she moved to a small town because:
We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.
To further the idea that the traditional brain drain from rural areas is changing, the well-respected Daily Yonder had a feature article last month summarizing research on “The Rural Student Brain Gain”. As they note:
The common wisdom is that rural America’s “best and brightest” want to leave home. New research shows these students are no more likely to want to leave than their counterparts. And when they do go, they have a stronger desire to return.
There is no doubt that many young people who can leave will do so – which more likely means the brightest who can get into major universities. To some extent, all young people want to see the world beyond where they grew up.
Almost a hundred years ago, Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis wrote what became a very popular song as many young men went off to Europe in World War I.
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’
How ya gonna keep ‘em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin’ the town
By the way, this is not just a rural question. A generation ago or so, parents in New York City were asking the same question – would the young return after seeing California? Feeding this concern, for instance, was an article in the New York Times on October 1, 1980 about so many New Yorkers living in Los Angeles that two of the big high schools in Brooklyn held alumni reunions there.
So while we don’t want the young to feel they are being kept captive, the question is will they return to their countryside origins or something like it?
To answer that question, there are others that need to be answered first.
In a post-industrial, global, Internet-connected economy, can young people still feel they are part of the larger world? Can they have as many opportunities for fulfillment and success back home as in the “big city”?
The answer is yes, the potential is there. But the young are still leaving because too few rural communities have done the things they need to do in order to open up those opportunities for their brightest young people. These lagging leaders haven’t built up the broadband necessary to connect both young and old to the world, nor have they helped people understand what they can do with that broadband connection, nor have they focused on the larger issues of developing a community anyone would want to live in if they had a choice in the matter.
And those who have given up hope for their rural communities because they know people there can never earn the megabucks found on Wall Street? They should be informed by other research, including a fascinating, classic study by Professor Gundars Rudzitis of the University of Idaho, in his article in Rural Development Perspectives, “Amenities Increasingly Draw People to the Rural West”:
More people are moving to rural areas for reasons that have nothing to do with employment. … the rural West is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. … Surveys in the 1970’s began to show that, if given a choice, people prefer to live in small towns and even in rural areas.
Amenities such as environmental quality and pace of life were becoming important in explaining why people move. The apparent sudden preference of people for rural life shocked many academics and planners because rural areas were thought to be at a major disadvantage compared with urban areas.
These findings also were a surprise because they conflicted with the major assumptions of migration theory, or why people move. Simply put, people were thought to move because they wanted to increase or maximize their incomes. … This approach, however, failed to explain why people moved out of cities into places like the rural West.
… People who migrate to high-amenity counties are often assumed to be retirees, as the growth and development of States like Arizona and Florida bears out. In our survey, however, only 10 percent of the new migrants were over 65 years of age. Instead, migrants were more likely to be young, highly educated professionals.
These studies and stories about people moving from city to country and back make clear that these decisions are more complicated than the headlines indicate. And broadband connectivity will upset these patterns even more.
Indeed, this new picture of what is going on may tell us why the best and brightest of the countryside might want to return after they’ve seen Paris (or New York or San Francisco).
© 2014 Norman Jacknis