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Cities are the future and the countryside is doomed, as far as population growth, jobs, culture and lifestyle are concerned. Right?
Certainly, that is the mainstream view expressed by analysts at organizations such as Brookings. This type of analysis says the “clustering” of business that occurred during the industrial age will only accelerate as the digital economy takes hold. This argument says digital economies will only deepen and accelerate the competitive advantage that cities have always had in modern times.
But other pundits and researchers argue that the digital age will result in “decentralization” and a more level playing field between urban and rural. Digital technologies are insensitive to location and distance and potentially offer workers a much greater range of opportunities than ever before.
The real question is whether a rural decline is inevitable or if the digital economy has characteristics that are already starting to write a different story for rural America. We have recently completed research that suggests it is.
While metro areas still capture the majority of new jobs and population gains, there is some anecdotal evidence pointing in a different direction. Consider a CBS article that notes how, due to high housing costs, horrible traffic, and terrible work-life balances, Bend, Oregon, is seeing an influx of teleworkers from Silicon Valley. The New York Times has reported on the sudden influx of escapees from the Valley that is transforming Reno, Nevada – for good or ill, it is not yet clear.
Likewise, a Fortune article argued that “millennials are about to leave cities in droves” and the Telegraph mentioned “there is a great exodus going on from cities” in addition to Time magazine reporting that the millennial population of certain U.S. cities has peaked.
Why millennials? Well, dubbed the first digital-native generation, their migration patterns could indicate the beginning of a digital age-related decentralization.
An Age-Based Look at Population Patterns
In search of insight, we looked at population change among the three generations that make up the entire country’s workforce: millennials, generation X, and baby boomers.
First, we defined each generation. Table 1 shows the age ranges of each generation according to the Pew Research Center, both in 2010 and 2016, as well as the age categories used to measure each generation. While not an exact match, categories are consistent across years and geographies.
In addition to looking at generations, we used the Office of Management core-based typology to control by county type (metropolitan, small city [micropolitan], and rural [noncore]). To factor in the influence of digital access affects local economies, we used the Digital Divide Index. The DDI, developed by the Purdue Center for Regional Development, ranges from zero to 100. The higher the score, the higher the digital divide. There are two components to the Digital Divide Index: 1) broadband infrastructure/adoption and 2) socioeconomic characteristics known to affect technology adoption.
Looking at overall trends, it does look like the digital age is not having a decentralization effect. To the contrary, according to data from the economic modeling service Emsi, the U.S. added 19.4 million jobs between 2010 and 2016. Of these, 94.6 percent were located in metropolitan counties compared to only 1.6 percent in rural counties.
Population growth tells a similar story. Virtually the entire growth in U.S. population of 14.4 million between 2010 and 2016 occurred in metropolitan counties, according to the Census Bureau. The graph below (Figure 1) shows the total population change overall and by generation and county type. As expected, the number of baby boomers (far right side of the graph) is falling across all county types while millennials and generation x (middle two sets of bars) are growing only in metro counties.
But there is a different story. When looking at only rural counties (what the OMB classification system calls “noncore”) divided into five equal groups or quintiles based on their digital divide (1 = lowest divide while 5 = highest divide), the figure at the very top of this article shows that rural counties experienced an increase in millennials where the digital divide was lowest. (The millennial population grew by 2.3 percent in rural counties where the digital divide was the lowest.) Important to note is that this same pattern occurs in metropolitan and small city counties as well.
Impact on the “Really Rural” County
“Urban” and “rural” can be tricky terms when it comes to demographics. The Census Bureau reports that 80% of the population lives in urban areas. Seventy-five percent of those “urban” areas, however, are actually small towns with populations of under 20,000. They are often geographically large, with a population density that falls off rapidly once you leave the center of town.
On the other hand, some rural counties are adjacent to metro areas and may benefit disproportionately from their location or even be considered metropolitan due to their commuting patterns. Because of this, we turned to another typology developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service that groups counties into nine types ranging from large metro areas to medium size counties adjacent to metro areas to small counties not adjacent to metro areas.
Figure 3 (below) shows counties considered completely rural or with an urban population of less than 2,500, not adjacent to a metro area. Among these counties, about 420 in total, those with the lowest digital divide experienced a 13.5 percent increase in millennials between 2010 and 2016. In other words, in the nation’s “most rural” counties, the millennial population increased significantly when those counties had better broadband access.
The New Connected Countryside: A Work in Progress
To conclude, if you just look at overall numbers, our population seems to be behaving just like they did in the industrial age – moving to cities where jobs and people are concentrated. Rural areas that lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy will continue to suffer from these old trends.
However, the digital age is young. Its full effects are still to be felt. Remember it took several decades for electricity or the automobile to revolutionize society. Besides, areas outside metro areas lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, limiting their potential to leverage the technology to affect their quality of life, potentially reversing migration trends.
Whether or not decentralization will take place remains to be seen. What is clear though is that (while other factors are having an impact, as well) any community attempting to retain or attract millennials need to address their digital divide, both in terms of broadband access and adoption/use.
In other words, our data analysis suggests that if a rural area has widely available and adopted broadband, it can start to successfully attract or retain millennials.
Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum. Norman Jacknis is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum and on the faculty at the Columbia University.