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135

Geographical Research



June 2008



46(2):135–138

doi: 10.1111/j.1745-5871.2008.00504.x

Blackwell Publishing Asia

Original Acticle

C. Gibson and N. Argent:

Getting On, Getting Up and Getting Out?

Getting On, Getting Up and Getting Out?
Broadening Perspectives on Rural Youth Migration

CHRIS GIBSON

1

* and NEIL ARGENT

2

1

GeoQuest Research Centre, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia.

2

Division of Geography and Planning, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.
*Corresponding author. Email: cgibson@uow.edu.au

For the 2006 combined International Geographical
Union, Institute of Australian Geographers Inc.
(IAG) and New Zealand Geographical Society
conference in Brisbane, the IAG Cultural Geo-

graphy and Rural Geography Study Groups
collaborated to offer a special themed session on
‘rural youth issues’. Our pre-conference blurb
on the session invited papers on a range of
issues facing young people in rural areas. Yet the
eventuating session focussed almost entirely on
the out-migration of youth from rural towns and
regions. Some papers made observations on the
causes and impacts of migration – for the migrants
leaving as well as for the places left behind. Others
discussed conceptual and policy issues related to
youth out-migration. There was, as far as we are
aware, no prior collusion between the various
speakers to provide the session with a closer
focus and an intellectual coherence that its
advertised title may have suggested was lacking.

We can only assume that the movement of young

people out of virtually all non-metropolitan
settlement zones (whether coastal, dry, remote
or inland) signifies a central, if not

the

central,
issue of contemporary research concern regard-
ing young people in rural areas. In many ways,
this construal of rural youth out-migration as
‘rural youth issues’ is a natural extension of
rural and cultural geographers’ ongoing concern

for the demographic, social and economic develop-
ment of non-metropolitan towns and regions.
For some time, research into what has been
popularly known in Australia as the ‘plight of
the bush’ or the ‘rural crisis’ has focussed on,

inter alia

, service declines and losses, erosion of
political influence, growing income and general
inequality of well-being as compared with the
metropolitan areas, and the sustained population
loss in many rural regions (e.g. Pritchard and
McManus, 2000; Gray and Lawrence, 2001).
More recently, though, and in the wake of the
popularity of ‘social capital’ as an organising
theme and heuristic framework, together with
more post-structuralist critiques of capitalist
approaches to regional development, focus has
switched to more interpretative, culture-centred
understandings of rural community change and
of the centrality of social development in com-
munity sustainability (Abbott-Chapman, 2001;
Tucker and Matthews, 2001; Tonts, 2005; Atherley,
2006; Brennan-Horley

et al

., 2007). Running
parallel to this theme, but only occasionally
intersecting with it, more sophisticated analyses
of rural populations have revealed the deeper
structures and trends shaping the medium- to
long-term trajectories of rural populations.
These include, for instance, the twin processes
of accelerated ageing and sustained youth net
migration loss in many rural zones (Hugo,
2005).
Between 1996 and 2001, 85 871 15 to 24
year-olds moved from rural areas to capital
cities within Australia (Australian Bureau of
Statistics, 2003). In some respects, this is not a
surprising statistic given that teenagers and
young adults are invariably the most mobile
groups within a given population (Brown

et al.

,
2006; Walmsley

et al

., 2006). However, rates of
rural youth out-migration have increased in the
past decade or so, as have rates of youth net
migration loss from rural areas (Walmsley

et al.

,
2006). Naturally, those directly observing, or
living through, this outflow have raised concerns
over the future viability and vitality of their
communities. What is going on within rural
towns and regions that is making so many young
people ‘vote with their feet’ to seek their futures
elsewhere? Have young rural people’s perceptions
of their current lives and their future aspirations
changed such that so many of them now wish to
136

Geographical Research



June 2008



46(2):135–138

© 2008 The Authors
Journal compilation © 2008 Institute of Australian Geographers

leave their places of birth and childhood for
larger, relatively unknown urban settings? These
are important questions, for, as Stockdale (2006)
has argued, the fashionable call for endogenous
development or ‘locally-led economic develop-
ment’ as the panacea for rural demographic and
economic decline is simply incompatible with
overall population decline and youth net migra-
tion loss.
These rhetorical questions also underline
some of the dilemmas within contemporary
research in the field of rural youth migration. As
noted above, we now generally understand the
broad dimensions of youth out-migration trends
(Gibbs and Cromartise, 1994; Garasky, 2002),
and even some of the major motivations for them
(Jamieson 2000; Kloep

et al

., 2003; Giddings and
Yarwood, 2005), but to date we lack sophisticated
analyses of the spatial and social complexity of
this phenomenon. In part, this lacuna is a natural
outcome of the primarily quantitative demographic
approach to this topic by population geographers,
rural geographers and others (Smith, 2007;
Milbourne, 2007). Migration is an inherently
complex spatial and social phenomenon, yet
only a relatively small portion of that com-
plexity is captured by census statistics. Therefore,
shedding light on the complexity of the migra-
tion process itself (e.g. how many moves over
what distances, and to what places over what
period of time) as well as the motives for, and
personal experiences of, moving involves a
commitment to more qualitative methods and
techniques (as used by Gibson (this volume) and
Easthope and Gabriel (this volume)), as well as
to longitudinal analyses.
The meshing, in this themed collection, of
cultural and demographic approaches to the pheno-
menon of youth migration raises new kinds of
questions about what has been assumed in the
media, in policy and in prior research (Gabriel,
2002). Most simply, to what extent is rural
youth out-migration a problem? This is both a
statistical and semiotic concern. Clearly, youth
out-migration has accelerated (Argent and
Walmsley, this issue). It contributes to local
skills shortages and reduces the pool of potential
future partners for young people. It can also
contribute to the set of wider discourses of
‘decline’ in rural places and thus feed into and
perpetuate ‘doom and gloom’ predictions.
But there are some potential benefits of youth
out-migration, contingent on who is doing the
moving, and why, and on what they gain from
the experience. Mobile young people experience
the diversity of other places, learn to live in big
cities, and sometimes return with new skills,
insights, and a wider sense of the world (though,
as Davies shows in this issue, the intentions by
some to return may evaporate once the move
away has been made). Much of the public
debate about the problems of youth exodus from
rural areas may well ‘ring true’, but the assump-
tions being made in these wider arenas require
constant critical assessment, lest researchers
become ‘blind’ to alternative explanations and
interpretations. This can have important policy
implications. For instance, at a recent Victorian
State parliamentary inquiry into the retention
of youth in rural communities, rural leaders
admitted that casting youth out-migration as a
problem alongside other negative media images
(of drought, withdrawal of services, ageing, etc.)
only hastened the impulse of young people to
leave: why would they stay in places with such
hardships? Beyond structural economic reform,
it was argued that a reversal in image was most
needed, and that youth who had already left
should be seen not as a loss, but as a group to
encourage and to maintain positive connections
with – as potential returnees (see Brown, 2006;
Parliament of Victoria, 2006).
Insights from cultural geography are important
here – particularly the understanding of personal
and social identities as being multiple and fluid,
rather than singular or fixed (Valentine, 2003).
Young people leaving rural areas are not a
homogenous or passive group merely submerg-
ing themselves within a wider structural flow of
population movement (Panelli, 2002). Young
people have multiple aspects to their lives and
diverse, sometimes competing, desires for their
future (in a career, or within a family or social
setting). Expectations placed on young people
can be overlysimplistic, ascribing truncated iden-
tities to young people when, in reality, their
social and psychological outlooks, and positions
within their communities and in relation to their
home towns are far more complex (see Easthope
and Gabriel, this issue). Academically-gifted
children or those of ambitious, socially mobile
parents may be automatically sent off to city
universities or boarding schools, while seem-
ingly less academic kids might be expected to
stay in town and get a job. Many of those young
people expected by their parents to stay on family
farms simply may not see much of a future in
doing so after leaving school, but then some
might return later in their working lives when
their priorities change (Stockdale, 2002). Young
C. Gibson and N. Argent:

Getting On, Getting Up and Getting Out?

137

© 2008 The Authors
Journal compilation © 2008 Institute of Australian Geographers

people might also feel that they do or do not
belong in rural places, for any number of reasons
connected to how people perceive them, or
due to their conceptions of their identities (see
Kraack and Kenway, 2002; Gibson, this issue).
Research on rural youth migration would benefit
from remaining sensitive to how people imagine
themselves, how they see their identities as
belonging or being constrained in particular
places, or as capable of transformation through
moving to other places (see Gabriel, 2006;
Gorman-Murray, 2007). The agency of young
people thus needs to be acknowledged in the
research process (Panelli, 2002), and in the
interpretations of how decisions are made about
their lives (see Drozdzewski, this issue).
With this increasing breadth of perspectives
being brought to bear on the contemporary rural
problematic, this small collection of papers on
rural youth migration is a timely contribution to
the ongoing discussion and debate over the
future shape and nature of Australian rural soci-
ety. We do not necessarily intend this special
part edition of

Geographical Research

to be
seen as an agenda-setting collection of papers.
Nevertheless, as a set they highlight, we believe,
fruitful grounds for future collaboration and cross-
fertilisation amongst rural, cultural and popula-
tion geographers in the study of cultures of rural
youth migration and transitions throughout the
life-course more generally.
The papers in this collection reflect on
aspects of the ‘getting on, getting up and getting
out’ of rural youth migration trends and pro-
cesses. Argent and Walmsley shed light on the
complex spatial dimensions of recent rural
youth out-, in- and net migration flows across
inland Australia during the 1990s and the first
decade of the new century. They emphasise that
increasingly large numbers of young adults have
been ‘getting out’ of both inland and coastal
non-metropolitan regions. However, in spite of
the orthodoxy of the ‘bright lights, big city’
rationale for much rural youth migration behavi-
our, Argent and Walmsley reveal that the desti-
nations for many young people are actually
within the same broad region as their childhood
homes. Whether these more localised migration
patterns are merely the first steps in a longer
journey to the cities is a hypothesis to be tested
in future census analyses.
Danielle Drozdzewski’s paper follows with an
account of some of the reasons that young
people give when they are asked why they might
‘get up’ and leave rural areas after finishing

school. The irony here is that Drozdzewski’s
case study is of a growing coastal resort/service
centre town – not the stereotypical ‘dying’ or
shrinking inland town. And yet it mirrors the
results of previous studies of youth out-migration
from declining regions, namely that educational
opportunities, socio-economic background and
familial experiences all modify migration intentions.
Amanda Davies then reverses the analytical
telescope in her investigation of the migration
intentions of university students in Perth, Western
Australia, upon the completion of their studies.
Davies found that most students had few plans
to move to rural Western Australia to embark on
a career. However, the results varied consider-
ably depending on whether or not a student had
grown up in or had some other experience of
inland regions such as the central Wheatbelt.
Hazel Easthope and Michelle Gabriel by
contrast offer a more qualitative perspective on
what it is like to grow up in a migration culture
where leaving is a standard expectation, and on
what it feels like to return. Youth out-migration
raises questions not just about who leaves, and
why, but deeper questions about how the migra-
tion experience may shape one’s identity and
concepts of one’s ‘home’. They also point to the
importance of thinking critically about how the
youth migration issue is framed in media and
policy discourse.
Chris Gibson’s paper continues the qualitative
theme, rounding off the collection by asking
questions about what can or cannot be done
about rural youth out-migration. In at least one
region, creative industries are seen as a new
option for jobs growth, providing alternative
career paths for young people uninspired by
agriculture, tourism or regional service indus-
tries. The manner in which rural out-migration
has been depicted in much recent research gives
the impression that this is an insurmountable
problem, especially in the midst of global restru-
cturing and widespread generational change. Is
this necessarily the case? Gibson analyses a case
study from northern New South Wales where
attempts have been made to promote new indus-
tries to young people in efforts to retain them.
Predictions of jobs growth may be overstated,
but new creative industries offer some hope as a
means of encouraging a sense of belonging
amongst young people in rural areas.
Overall, the papers represent a range of
methodological and philosophical approaches to
the topic, from the more orthodox quantitative
analysis of population geography (Argent and
138

Geographical Research



June 2008



46(2):135–138

© 2008 The Authors
Journal compilation © 2008 Institute of Australian Geographers

Walmsley) to more deeply qualitative and
critically oriented work (Easthope and Gabriel).
Collectively, they highlight the interplay of
structural factors and more slippery cultural
perceptions and discourses in shaping the youth
migration phenomenon. It is abundantly clear
that context matters and that individuals shape
their own mobilities – but also that there are com-
monalities between places, and similarities in
the ways in which stories of in and out-migration
are told (Panelli, 2002). As a final comment, we
note that almost all these papers focus primarily
upon youth themselves, as individual agents or
as categories, but that they say rather little about
space and place. Although most of the papers
discuss the particular economic and social
characteristics of their case study regions and/or
towns, there is little in-depth exploration of
place. Here we are referring to the locational
and historical forces that have shaped, and con-
tinue to shape, in a mutually constitutive way,
the rural centres and broader zones that are
losing ‘their’ children and young adults. In what
ways have the social, cultural and economic
evolution of these communities affected con-
temporary young peoples’ senses of opportunity
and belonging so that many of them actively
wish to and, in fact,

do

leave? To what extent can
rural communities control or, at least, manage
the forces driving this desire? To some extent,
this lack of treatment can be attributed to the
stipulated brevity of the papers. Future research
could certainly pursue these dimensions of the
rural youth migration phenomenon in more
depth, exploring not just demographic trends or
young people’s migratory intentions from par-
ticular places, but focus more specifically on the
mutual co-constitution of place and mobile
social identities.

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