Rural Sweden is losing young people, but that's not the whole story

Lieuwe Jan Hettema
Lieuwe Jan Hettema - [email protected]
Rural Sweden is losing young people, but that's not the whole story
Demographic researcher Dean Carson encourages youth to leave Storuman. Photo: Lieuwe Jan Hettema

The departure of teenagers and people in their early twenties offers advantages for rural areas, argue Lapland researchers, who suggest out-migration is wrongly imagined as a problem. Swedish youth do not all move to cities and many of them return home at a later stage.


Boys run on the icy roads of Storuman, a three-hour drive from Umeå. Snowfall blocks the view on this late autumn day, but a look at bus commuters makes it clear that the population of this municipality is diverse.

All age groups and several cultures are represented in the 6,000 inhabitants. The Sami people have been living around this area, known as Lusspie in the Ume Sami language, for generations and the 2015 refugee crisis made it the home of many mainly Arabic migrants. The migration patterns here are illustrative for rural Sweden.

Between 2007 and 2017, 552 people aged 20-24 (the age group with the highest figures of people moving away) moved to the municipality of Storuman from other parts of Sweden. In the same period 766 in the same age group moved away from the municipality.

Storuman municipality is around a three-hour drive from Umeå. Photo: Lieuwe Jan Hettema

But Australian demographer Dean Carson, who works and lives in this southern part of Lapland, says he has never seen any evidence that communities weaken when young residents leave. A researcher at the Charles Darwin University, he has spent two decades investigating remote and rural communities.

"Mainly politicians, and people fearing the closing of facilities, think keeping 'our' youth helps," says Carson, who paints a similar picture of all the ten municipalities he has researched in southern Lapland.

Dean Carson, a demographer from Australia. Photo: Lieuwe Jan Hettema

People aged between 19 and 24 migrate more than those in other age groups, both from rural and urban areas. Young adults from Sweden's three biggest cities, Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg, are the only exception. They move less than their peers.

Emma Lundholm, a researcher in internal migration at the University of Umeå, understands why communities are concerned about out-migration of young people, but says the net loss of youth does not show the whole picture.

"Youth are the driving forces of population decline, but this is one side of the story," she explains. "Net-migration numbers give the impression that all youth move to urban Sweden, because the smaller group of youth migrating to rural areas are unnoticed in the big numbers."

One third returns

There is no evidence communities perform better when local young people stay.

Research does suggest those leaving their homes get better education, employment and are more successful in finding a partner than those who stay in the place where they grew up. This includes return migrants, who make up one third of the population of southern Lapland.

"We should encourage youth to leave," says Carson, whose Australian hometown has an education fund dedicated to this exact purpose. "We might increase the possibility of return if we prepare and support them."

Sofia Berggren and her colleague Johan Jirlén are two such 'returned migrants'.

"I wanted to live in a city as a teenager," says Berggren. "It was a good decision to go to Umeå, because it turned out I like the nature more."

A communication degree helped to find a job and settle down in her home area. Her colleague returned from Luleå with a degree in IT. "I would never have left Storuman if it had a university," says Jirlén. Several friends followed their example.

Sofia Berggren and Johan Jirlén returned after graduating. Photo: Lieuwe Jan Hettema

It is often believed that what is bad for the community is good for the individual, so many families might encourage their young relatives to move for education, while at the same time bemoaning the number of young people leaving the area. But Carson does not agree the latter is always negative.

"Research in Australia showed people do not realize that while youth leave, other youth move in," says Carson. "We are so focused on the leavers that we forget the newcomers." He thinks the focus should be on finding ways to support the arriving young people, take care of those who don't leave at all and attract return migrants.

Populations stay stable or grow due to return migrants and especially new immigrants.

"Even if the number of immigrants in rural areas is from a national perspective marginal, it has great impact on communities," says Lundholm. The arrival of a few individuals directly affects the future of facilities: most immigrants and returned leavers are in a child-bearing age and start to settle for good around the age of 30. This age group is crucial for a balanced population structure.

A rural perspective

Most jobs in rural northern Sweden used to be in the energy, mining and forestry sectors, and the number of workers needed for these occupations has declined in modern times. "Why should people stay if they are not needed anymore?" wonders Carson.

Stable or slightly decreasing population rates might seem a mark of failure when looking at cities like Umeå, where authorities are aiming for population growth to 200,000 inhabitants.

"We are stuck in a paradigm of growth," says Lundholm, adding that priorities and expectations differ between urban and rural Sweden.

"Rural areas attract different kinds of people with different lifestyles," explains Carson. Growth is therefore not necessary and a smaller number of public services and facilities in comparison to cities are acceptable to many of those who choose to stay in, move to or return to these locations.

"Recruiting educated return migrants could be a community's best chance to hire a dentist or doctor," says Lundholm. "People tend to move to places they have a relationship with."

Emma Lundholm believes recruiters should focus on return migrants. Photo: Lieuwe Jan Hettema

Peter Berggren of Storuman's Centre for Rural Medicine sees more options. "International examples show it is more likely doctors decide to work in rural areas if they have experience with it," says the director of the international research centre. 

Medicine students at the University of Umeå will from January 2019 be able to do part of their training at Storuman's sjukstuga, a rural hospital offering mainly primary care. This rural stream project is unique in Sweden and based on successful schemes in Australia.

"The project's main goal is to develop good doctors, but it would be a bonus if some of them stay," says Berggren.

Peter Berggren is running a project to train rural doctors. Photo: Lieuwe Jan Hettema

This kind of project could be the rural solution for the national problem of finding people for high skilled occupations.

That's how Dean Carson thinks Swedes should approach rural challenges. "Living in a rural area means the community must figure out how to take care of itself," says the Australian. "The city is not how things have to be."


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