Many rural communities are concerned about losing young people (Carr and Kefalas, 2010, Brown and Schafft, 2011). As intelligent and motivated youth leave—creating the oft-labeled brain-drain—a community has less ability to address its social and economic needs (Artz and Yu 2011), weakened social capital (Wilson 1996, Barnett 2006), and loses agricultural lands as family farmland gets sold to agri-business or non-agricultural uses when the children do not carry on the farming tradition (Carr and Keflas 2009; 2010; Kuminoff, Sokolow and Sumner, 2001; Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, 2004). Young adult population loss raises the costs for individuals of infrastructure such as schools, public services and recreational opportunities (Artz and Yu 2011), affecting the quality of life for the remaining residents.
Rural communities across Wisconsin are seeing aging populations, school closings, declining downtowns, and other signs that youth out-migration and brain-drain are real issues (Johnson et al., 2005; grow, 2010; Swedien, 2012; Mills, 2014). Those communities that lose too much of their youth population are in danger of becoming unsustainable, threatening the rural backbone for regional family farming and family resort communities.
But there is variation and complexity in rural age demographic transition and the related "brain drain" phenomena. For instance, rural areas furthest from metropolitan centers may fare worse in terms of brain drain (Artz, 2003). Many rural communities may lose young people during their college years, but gain them back as young adults marry and begin raising children (Winchester, 2012). Quality of life amenities such as high-speed Internet service may also attract young people (Artz, 2003). Loss of youth and brain drain are also not necessarily the same thing. Marginalized youth may find themselves stuck in place with relatively limited access to economic and civic community life (Carr and Keflas, 2009). They contribute to a statistical youth gain but less to brain gain in the sense of a formally educated and credentialed population. Likewise, expensive amenity rich rural areas may attract retirees, producing a statistical brain gain but proportional youth decline.
Challenges in Understanding Brain Drain and Youth Exodus
There are many challenges in attempting to address the question of rural brain drain and youth exodus. First, the existing research starts from documenting the loss of youth, and analyzing the causes of that loss. Consequently, as people start to look for solutions, they are limited to thinking about doing the opposite of what they see as causing the loss, which restricts creative solutions.
Second, most attempts to address the loss of youth, and of general population decline in rural areas, start with putting strategies into place and hoping for the best. Many of these strategies are programs that focus on serving young people as individuals, rather than on the overall community culture and economy (Wood, 2008). The risk of such a strategy is that an individual approach that works in one place may not work in another or may not operate at an economy of scale to make a difference.
A third challenge is that most research attempting to understand youth and rural brain drain/gain analyzes data at the county level. But county level data do not offer enough of a fine-grained analysis to take account of factors in local communities such as the presence of penal institutions, large industrial operations, and higher education institutions, all of which can skew the statistics and about which local government can do little. For example, it is possible for one corner of the county to have a high youth gain college town and another corner to have a youth-losing abandoned mill town. In addition, county government can often do little to impact quality of life at the municipal level, and most people do not experience life at the county level but at the local municipal level. Consequently, we need research at the municipal level. And at this level we know very little. To address this need, we ask: How do rural towns and villages gain or lose young people and the talent they may represent?
In this project we focused on local municipalities, identifying local communities that stand out as gaining or retaining young people without the presence of an obvious factor such as a major industrial plant or large university, and then analyzing the combination of factors that helped those outliers gain or retain young people. Rather than start with the cause, we started with the effect and then looked for the combinations of causes producing that effect. Our purpose was to identify factors enhancing youth brain gain that municipalities can actually do something about. It is almost impossible, for example, that municipalities can attract a new university. But there are likely other strategies, currently unidentified, that they can do. Our research aimed to identify those strategies.
Our Approach and Biases
We decided to use a different starting point for this project, with three different biases.
A strengths approach Rather than study the question of why places were losing young adults, we decided to see if we could study places that were actually increasing their share and number of young adults. We reasoned that, if we could find such places, we might be able to understand the strengths of these places that could explain why young adults were appearing in greater numbers and proportions in those places. Making visible those strengths might make it easier for other places to fashion strategies to gain young adults.
An effects-first approach Rather than study individual programs designed to attract or retain young adults--starting with the program as a cause and then looking for its effects--we decided to start by looking for the effects and then trace back to the causes. By finding and studying places that showed the desired effects—greater size and growth of the young adult population—we could potentially see the combination of causes from a holistic lens.
A community-level approach Rather than a coarse-grained statistical analysis of populations at a broad scale like a county, we decided to focus in on local communities. In doing so we could see the clustering of young adults in specific places, and thus could customize our questions about what caused young adults to appear in those places.
We use some terms in this study that are important to define.
Rural and Small Town We do not use the federal definitions of rural in this study. Those definitions, like so much of the research, are county-based. Since we focus on the municipal level rather than the county, we included low population places in counties that are considered urbanbut where the community residents feel separated from the city. Most of our interviewees also did not use the word rural to describe where they lived as much as they used the phrase "small town." To a large, but not complete, extent the two terms go together and the definitions of each of them are vague at best (Fuguitt, Brown, and Beale, 1989; Bell, 2007). We ultimately decided to rely on the self-definitions of people in the places we studied.
Gaining We use this term to refer to places that are increasing their absolute numbers, not proportions of young adults. As we will discuss, there are hardly any places in Wisconsin that are increasing their proportions of young adults.
Maintaining We use term to refer to places that have higher proportions of young adults than the median place in Wisconsin. It is important to understand that this does not necessarily mean that a place is keeping the same young adults in a place, but that they are keeping a higher overall proportion of young adults.
Young Adults We ultimately decided to define young adult as someone between 20 and 39. This was partly because of the structure of our data (we broke that age range into five year cohorts) and because we wanted to limit the influence of college and university populations (we took other steps to limit that influence as well). We went up to 39 based on wide ranging discussions with credentialed and experiential experts, justifying that upper range as still having a strong focus on the parenting of young children.