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As Swedish Cities Draw the Young and Educated, Can Rural Areas Survive?

Most young people in Sweden leave for the city and never go home, a new study finds.

People take a stroll on a sunny autumn day in Stockholm. (Jessica Gow/Reuters)

Big cities are a big draw for Swedish college grads, perhaps even more so than their American peers. But as educated young people in that country head to cities in droves, can smaller rural places survive? A recent study by my colleague Charlotta Mellander and Lina Bjerke published in Annals of Regional Studies takes a close look.

The study uses extraordinarily detailed data which enabled the researchers to track the location choices of everyone who graduated from university in 2001 across all 290 Swedish regions. They then sorted Swedish college graduates from 2001 into two groups: those who lived in rural areas and those who lived in urban areas before going university.

Mellander and Bjerke tracked where Swedish college grads moved in the short-term (five years) and longer-run (10 years) since graduating. As in the U.S., the mobility of Swedes peaks between 20 and 30 years of age. This is the critical time when people graduate from school, enter the job market, find partners, marry and have children.

The study conducts a detailed statistical analysis that compares the characteristics of the college grads that return back home to rural areas (their age, gender, occupation, marital status, children and so forth), along with the characteristics of the places they ended up (including wage levels, employment levels, presence of college and universities, amenities such as coastlines and green spaces, and tax rates).

The table below summarizes their key findings, showing the number and share of Swedish college grads who came from urban and rural places and where they ended up five and 10 years after graduating.

Total Census of Swedish College Graduates from 2001

Rural Origin Percent Urban Origin Percent
1996 12,638 27.4 33,461 72.6
2006
Home Region 6,158 48.7 17,385 52.0
Rural 116 9.2 2,089 6.2
Urban 5,064 40.1 13,408 40.1
2011
Home Region 6,014 47.6 16,178 48.3
Rural 1,286 10.2 2,422 7.2
Urban 5,058 40.0 14,145 42.3

In 1996, before heading off to university, 27.4 percent of Swedish college students lived in rural areas, with nearly 72.6 percent hailing from urban regions. Both five and 10 years after graduating from college, about half of both groups had returned to, or remained in, their respective home regions.

But big cities were the big draw for the other half, who moved away from their home regions. Forty percent of those who hailed from both urban and rural areas headed to urban areas, and this was true both five and 10 years after they graduated. Conversely, just 9 or 10 percent of those from rural areas, and 6 or 7 percent of those from urban areas, moved to rural areas five and 10 years after graduating.

Home Swede, Home?

The good news for Swedish rural areas is that grads who have married and had children are more likely to head back to (or have stayed in) the place they are from. This is especially true of grads from smaller, rural areas. Indeed, this effect shows up early, and can be identified five years out from graduation. The study found that those who had kids within five years of graduating were significantly more likely to stay or return home. But, after 10 years, this effect essentially disappeared. This may be due to the fact that their jobs and professional networks are in these locations, or that they have simply had more success and can afford more expensive urban housing.

There are several factors that also shape who is likely to return home. Swedish grads who returned to or stayed in the rural areas they came from tended to be older and have fewer total years of university education. The same was true of those who moved from one rural area to another. Grads who moved from rural to urban areas were more likely to be single, be more educated, and work in creative, professional, or knowledge-based fields.

The urbanites who stayed or returned home also tended to be older, married and have children. Those who moved to another urban region were younger, single and work in creative fields. Interestingly, the urbanites who moved to rural areas also were more likely to be single and without kids.

The end result of this talent migration is that it is eating away at the future of rural areas in Sweden. While a small fraction of college grads are more likely to stay in or return to rural places (especially those who hail from rural areas originally and who marry and have kids early), the ultimate effect of the migration of college grads in Sweden is to drain rural areas of talent. Year after year, the flow of people to urban centers not only empties rural areas of more and more talent, it makes it harder for them to offer the kinds of amenities and services that are needed to attract or retain talent to begin with.

This ends up creating a slow boil of sorts for many rural regions, according to Mellander. It means that educated people who might like to move to and live in these smaller, rural areas will actually find it increasingly difficult to do so over time. Not only will these grads face more limited economic opportunity, they will have less choice in types of housing, and less access to key services and amenities, from schools and libraries to grocery stores and restaurants. As Mellander puts it: “The big question is what will become of many of these rural areas over time, as the draining away of talent slowly but surely erodes their economic functions and quality of life.”

This isn’t just an issue for Swedes. As economic activity becomes increasingly concentrated and spiky everywhere, more and more rural areas across the advanced world are likely to find themselves facing the same dilemma.

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