“I need to leave” – many young people growing up in the countryside feel this compulsion, but it is not the whole story. The theme of Academy Research Fellow Kaisa Vehkalahti’s research comes from her personal experiences as well. Our current idea of how young people relate to their home region in the countryside needs updating.
“If anything, I would like to study young people living in rural areas,” this is what cultural and social historian, Academy Research Fellow Kaisa Vehkalahti thought when considering new research topics years ago.
“Having grown up in the countryside, this research has been about returning to my own roots, too.”
Vehkalahti spent her childhood and youth in a rural municipality in Northern Ostrobothnia in the 1980s. Her home farm in a small village had some dairy cattle.
“I can say that I had a good and happy childhood in the rural environment. However, from quite early on, it was evident that I would leave for studies elsewhere,” Vehkalahti says.
Research findings show that this has been the way forward for many generations. “The need to leave” is still a widely shared experience in the sparsely populated countryside in Finland as well as internationally.
Migration has brought young people from rural areas into towns and cities for decades already. Young baby boomers moved to towns and cities to find jobs during the years of Great Migration in the 1960s and 1970s. The trend of rural depopulation has continued steadily. The image of the withering countryside, aging population and weakening services is familiar and often repeated in media.
Out-migration is particularly strong in the age group of young women between the ages of 16 and 29.
“These are things that young people have to face,” Vehkalahti says. “Unlike their peers in towns, young people living in sparsely populated areas must make big decisions regarding their future at an early age, right at the end of the lower secondary school.”
Countryside youth can be divided into three groups
However, we know rather little about the experiences of young people in rural areas. In youth research, the perspective of urban youth has been dominant.
What do rural youths think about their home region? How does the meaning of one’s home region change at different stages of life?
According to Vehkalahti, countryside youth can be divided into three groups: those that are highly urban oriented and ready to move, those who undergo a long transition phase from the countryside to urban areas, and those actively looking for and developing opportunities to stay in their home region. Those who are looking forward to staying in rural regions need to make strategic educational and career choices in order to find employment opportunities in the home region.
“In our study, we have followed the life paths of young people coming from different sparsely populated areas. By far the most significant factor in their life choices has been the availability of and access to education. When there are no options available in the home municipality or neighbouring areas, young people must move elsewhere, at least for studies.”
Nevertheless, few teenagers are ready to move far away right after completing lower secondary school. Instead, they often aim to find a place to study within a short and easy reach from their home places. Vehkalahti explains that the teenagers’ families also hope for such an option.
As a researcher, Vehkalahti would like to expand and diversify our notions of rural youth so that different kinds of voices and experiences would be heard.
“For the young people in rural areas, it is not only about educational or career choices. When making choices about where to study and where to move, their whole life is at stake, it affects for example their family relations and friendships. Many feel confused about the choices, because the home region may be dear for them, but they may also see the need to move.”
Urban youth cultures present in the countryside
Youth research has long talked about the lengthening of youth.
This study has shown that the life of youth and young adults coming from rural areas is multilocal for a long time. They pursue their studies in towns or cities but return to their home regions for summer jobs, for example. Thus, they seek to take advantage of the best sides of urban opportunities as well as the peaceful life in the countryside.
At this stage of life, many people have ambivalent feelings toward the home region: A young person may find the small circles of rural locations simultaneously as both positive and deterring.
Moreover, Vehkalahti says that the line between the countryside and urban areas has become more porous. Along with digitalisation, urban youth cultures are now present in young people’s life also in the countryside.
In the opinion of rural youth, nature and peace are the most important positive aspects of the countryside.
“The same opinion comes up frequently in the views of older Finns as well. Appreciation of tranquillity of the countryside. It seems to be typical for Finns that we simultaneously appreciate things that are related to the country life, but also enjoy things related to city life. Perhaps this ambivalence has given rise for the inherently Finnish dream, which is still strongly present in the thinking of today’s young people: a single-family home in a city, preferably on the lakefront.”
Vehkalahti’s research group has also used various oral history methods to study the relationship to the countryside among middle-aged or older people who were born in the countryside. An important observation is that many people still find the countryside an integral part of their identity, even if they had lived in a city for decades and the actual relationship to the home region had faded.
Rural young people are active
The ongoing follow-up study focuses on the everyday life, belonging and future orientation of rural young people. The project started in two municipalities in Central and Eastern Finland in 2015, and in Lapland in 2019, when the participating young people were in the ninth year of comprehensive school.
Now these young people are mostly in their twenties, and they have been interviewed at regular intervals.
The interviews have given a deeper insight into the meanings that young people associate with their home regions in different life situations. Many interesting observations have come up.
“In the lives of youth under the age of 18, long distances and scarce public transport as well
as the shortage of services and free-time activities are major issues,” Vehkalahti says. “On the other hand, our study has highlighted how active many rural youths are. When there are no organised free-time activities available, they do things by themselves, including self-driven club activities and learning things in groups of friends.”
Animals and nature are important to people living in the countryside.
“Along with age, the relationship to the home region changes. Many people find rural locations as a safe and rich childhood environment but begin to yearn for something more in their adolescence,” Vehkalahti says.
Young people in the Nordic countries face similar challenges
Kaisa Vehkalahti works as a senior researcher and a teacher at the Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä. At the beginning of January 2022, she returned from a research period at the University of Melbourne, Australia, which has an extensive tradition of follow-up studies on young people.
Research in Vehkalahti’s research group also contains a strong international perspective. Last autumn, a large Nordic comparative follow-up study on young people was launched, which is led by Vehkalahti. It investigates the everyday life and future views of young people living in diverse rural areas in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The study involves nearly two hundred young people from ten sparsely populated areas.
“It has been interesting to see how similar the experiences are that the young people have reported, even though they come from highly different rural areas. In the other Nordic countries, young people in the countryside face similar challenges related to the demographic and service structures, and they feel uncertain about their life choices.”
The study has also brought out the differences between areas.
“For example, there are many sparsely populated areas in the Nordic countries, where there is a labour shortage, especially of highly educated professionals,” Vehkalahti says.
The Nordic research includes the perspective of rural development as well.
“In this Nordic project, one of our tasks is to investigate young people’s views about the future and also their suggestions as to how the sparsely populated areas should be developed.”
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