Youth moving to the city has been a serious dilemma for regional Australian communities for decades.
Between 2011 and 2016, 180,000 Australians aged 20 to 35 moved to the capital cities, although about 30% of them eventually returned to a regional area.
Researchers attribute the “migration of youth” to a variety of reasons, from the search for education and employment opportunities to the attractiveness of urban lifestyles. This can have a negative impact on communities left behind, including aging of the local workforce, impact on the local economy and availability of services.
But what about the youth who do not go?
As part of a three-year study of this phenomenon, 50 youth were interviewed from three regional regions of Australia – Griffith in NSW, Port Hedland in Western Australia and Port Lincoln in South Australia. The age of the participants ranged from 18 to 34.
The aim of this study was to better understand the reasons why young people leave these areas, choose to stay in their hometowns, or return to their hometowns for a period of time.
The three locations were chosen because each is experiencing net youth migration, despite economic investment, online study options, and business sponsorship schemes such as regional development Australia’s Grow Our Own. Such partnerships between industry and government are part of an effort to retain youth in their regional areas.
Young people explain why they live
Interviews show that the reasons Australian youth choose to stay or leave were more related to feelings and identity than to money, education or job opportunities. For example, youth who live in the country feel safe and comfortable in the report:
I think country cities, they have more security, and are more like a family. I think there’s a level of intimacy in the relationships you develop in the community.
Others spoke of feeling insecure and stressed out in cities:
I didn’t have the confidence to go to the city and be alone. I’m a big fan of the wider population, not the city. I would go downstairs to go on vacation and go shopping, but I’m not a big fan of crowds.
Others then said they wanted peace and stability:
I love my peace and quiet, and I also love having a nice space around me. I don’t like listening to the car all the time. I am not big on change.
Young people also described their country or regional lifestyle as a positive thing worth living:
All my life I’ve always grown up seeing old people having a yard, and they have their roses and their chickens or their dogs and their cats, and they seem more satisfied, like they have more of a purpose in the country – They can grow their own vegetables here.
the stigma of living
But the decision was not straightforward, despite the desire to stop. The interviewers talked about a cultural expectation, starting from childhood, that when you reach adolescence, you need to go up in the “big smoke” to go to university:
i feel the pressure [to leave] probably came from the school sector more than family […] When I look back, I think the schooling sector put the burden on going to university.
This was reinforced by others in the community, who hoped that the young people would leave.
If you were waiting at the train station or something like that, they would say “When are you leaving?” Everyone just assumes that you will.
Young people reported that the pressure to leave came from school teachers who had positive experiences of city life, or from parents who wanted their children to have a “better life”.
when I get [local] job, I was too afraid to tell my parents. They really wanted me to go to university.
Interviewers described how staying in their home areas was tantamount to failure.
It’s almost like you have to quit if you’re going to be successful.
A small shift can make a big difference
What if a regional youth asked “When are you leaving?” Instead of asking, we asked “What are your plans?”?
What difference can that small change in emphasis make, so regional youth feel free to build homes wherever they feel safe and comfortable, and not according to preconceived notions and expectations?
Policy makers and regional community leaders should understand that there can be complex emotional reasons behind young people’s migration decisions, and that they may feel pressured to leave or decide to stay.
Turning the tide of youth leaving their regional area may be as much about changing the attitudes and expectations of the community as it is about creating local employment opportunities.