There are many reasons why young people choose to leave rural areas – and also many preconceived ideas. One is that the irresistible lure of mobility draws young people away. Another is that rural areas offer no future for young people. Such places are considered stagnant, and those who choose to stay are often stigmatised as people who lack the ambition or agency to move on. They are left behind, both figuratively and literally. Given that, the truly bold move is not to leave for the bigger cities, but to stay put.
Many Nordic rural municipalities are grappling with demographic trends such as ageing populations and the migration of young people to urban areas, leading to less diversified labour markets and services. Encouraging and enabling young people to remain and settle in rural areas presents a challenge, as the cities and bigger towns offer more educational opportunities and greater employment prospects. Rural areas must adapt to demographic trends while also reaching out to potential new, young inhabitants – a difficult balance to strike on the best of days. Fewer people means less money for services for older people, and fewer schools and public services for children and youth. As opportunities and services diminish, fewer people see a potential future in rural areas, and the situation begins to spiral. This is a vicious circle.
In many ways, the discussion of moving up, out and away implies that success can only be obtained through mobility. This nurtures commonly held perceptions of what constitutes a “good” career, a “fulfilling” life or “big” dreams, as defined through comparison with others. The idea of mobility also holds the promise of new identity – an opportunity for reinvention or to be your true self, which may have been suppressed in areas of greater social control. For some, mobility offers deliverance; for others, it presents a challenge, as it normalises the idea that “the grass is always greener on the other side”. It deflates the self-confidence and identity of rural areas. They become places to visit, not places to live.
However, we want to be able to live in rural areas; we want to thrive, settle, and develop our communities. We want to reclaim rural agency, reinvent rural identities as bold and innovative, and raise the profile of Nordic rural areas as more than just tourist destinations, but viable and flourishing places full of opportunity.
We at the Nordic Rural Youth Panel set out to advise policy- and decision-makers in Nordic rural areas about what young people need to thrive in these areas, and what will make them want to stay.
It is important to recognise that there is a multitude of alternative narratives and of potential representatives for Nordic rural youth. We are just one small group of voices calling for change. But we believe that the policy recommendations for rural municipalities we present here can help improve rural lives for all.
The Nordic Rural Youth Panel