#195 – Inside Our Industry – “Brain Gain” in Rural America and Who Is Behind It#195 – Inside Our Industry –

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

The headline caught our attention. We are thrilled to see “brain gain” occurring in rural communities.

“Brain Gain” in Rural America and Who Is Behind It
Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder, March 13, 2024

For many people, leaving a rural place is a rite of passage. From higher education to looking for love, many think they have to leave to pursue the rest of their lives. This narrative contributes to the often repeated and not all true story that our rural communities are dying. 

According to University of Minnesota researcher Ben Winchester, rural communities are actually gaining residents — mainly above the age of 35 – in a trend that he calls “brain gain”. Winchester also said the “brain drain” trend of 18 years olds leaving their home communities is not only a rural trend. Overall, between 40-60% of all kids end up leaving their hometown. “When you’re 18-25 you’re generally very individualistic,” said Winchester.

The common refrain across interviewees for this story was that leaving their hometown was important, for the perspective that distance provides. Whether or not they returned home, or settled elsewhere, they found that trying something new taught them what their values are. 

So how do rural areas continue the trend of “brain gain”, or older demographics returning or moving to rural areas? How do rural areas continue to attract people who want to live there and contribute to the community — whether they are from the area or coming from elsewhere? 

“The trend I call the ‘brain gain’ really picked up in the nineties and filled up almost every vacant home in rural America. And then we’ve seen that trend continue for the past two decades,” said Winchester. He goes on to say that that trend has slowed down more recently, which could be because the rural housing stock is largely filled with older residents, retiring in place. 

“This generation of seniors are staying in their homes longer than any previous generation. So it kind of slowed down this brain gain trend,” said Winchester. This also contributes to housing prices going up due to lack of housing stock in rural areas across the country. 

“Even if you wanted to move to a rural community, you couldn’t because there is really literally nowhere for them to live,” he said. 

Winchester emphasizes the importance of community support for new residents because it’s going to be the new residents that step up into leadership roles in the future. He said that returning adults already have the community infrastructure, and coming back to where they grew up is going to be a much easier transition than for someone new to a community. 

To keep our rural communities alive and thriving, not necessarily growing, Winchester said that communities need a plan for turnover in leadership, whether that’s nonprofit boards, county commissioners, city council, or other leadership positions. 

“Over 75% of rural homes are occupied by baby boomers and older. And when they turn over the next 25 years, we’re gonna have the largest turnover of residents in our rural communities that we’ve almost ever seen,” he said. “Are we ready for these succession plans for leadership?” 

Rural is not one thing, said Winchester. “Our community constantly changes, our culture constantly changes. We’re not a melting pot. We’re a stew, and we are ladeling things out and we’re adding things in all the time.”

Full article.