America’s rural population is shrinking.

In just a few decades, the rise of computers, the Internet, and wireless technologies has created a high-tech, interconnected world that is changing society forever. But this brave new “digital age” is contributing to the steady decline in rural populations. Youth who grew up with devices and WiFi just aren’t as interested in the pace of rural life…or its associated types of careers.

The 2007-09 recession also played a part in the demographic shift, as data reveals that rural populations started declining after 2010—the “first decade-long rural population loss in history.” Ever since, rural counties have been losing their young adults to cities where they attend college or compete for white-collar jobs. Some move simply because they want access to more urban lifestyles and amenities they can’t get in remote rural communities.

The Slight Rebound Tease

There has been a slight rebound in some affected areas, especially during the height of the pandemic. This occurred, in part, due to layoffs and in-person work restrictions prompting people to flee congested cities and work remotely in more scenic areas. As demographer Ken Johnson explained, “The recent widespread nonmetropolitan population increases are the result of substantial net migration gains that offset the growing natural decrease fostered by COVID-19.”

However, these gains must be taken with a grain of salt. For starters, they were mainly restricted to a few select regions—and incoming residents had little interest in taking up typical rural jobs such as farming or other agricultural work.

Many rural newcomers were nearing retirement and simply looking for a cheaper place to settle down. Marketplace notes that “almost a quarter of people 65 and older live in rural areas. Many are moving to rural places within reach of smaller cities, where they can still get what they need, and for less.” Thus, when seniors move in, they may only be adding to the “graying” of rural towns versus contributing to the advancement and future of those areas.

As far as working-age adults who moved to rural areas because of Covid, those limited gains may be short-lived. Pandemic restrictions have become a distant memory and employers are telling their work-from-home staff to get back to their offices.

What Young Adults Want

Regardless of the slight rebound, recent high school graduates and college-aged adults who grew up in rural areas remain anxious as ever to move away and discover what lies beyond the borders of their hometowns. And the siren song of high-paying tech jobs isn’t helping.

“Young people born and raised in the U.S. don’t want to work on farms,” commented Tom Mueller, a rural sociologist from the University of Oklahoma. Adding to the issue is the fact that farm work itself has changed, with cumbersome tasks becoming more automated and mechanized. This newfound efficiency adds to the host of problems with attracting people to move into rural areas for work purposes.

A Perfect Storm of Struggles

Meanwhile, despite the upgrades, farmers are grappling with higher-than-usual costs due to ongoing supply chain problems, trade disruptions, unseasonal weather events, increased input costs, exchange rate fluctuations, and other issues. Combined, all these changes and complications spell trouble for the American agricultural sector—and the rural towns within which they exist.

For young adults looking to launch their careers, it’s easier and more enticing to take off and never look back. And their numbers don’t get replenished, leaving their hometown leaders struggling to figure out how to address the steady population declines. The answers seem elusive.

As NPR points out, “Rural areas mostly rely on births rather than incoming migration to grow. And with fewer childbearing adults around, communities start to shrivel.” This has become more visibly apparent, with some areas reaching the point of being classified as ghost towns.

Rural towns in the states of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico seem particularly susceptible to becoming ghost towns, as factors combine to wreak havoc on these communities. Nevada, for example, has long been prone to boom and bust cycles within its mining community.

From the discovery of the Comstock Lode in the mid-1800s to the roller coaster ups and downs ever since, Nevada’s mining endeavors have unintentionally spawned dozens of ghost towns. Many have now been relegated to the status of tourist attractions, while others merely bake and crumble vacantly under the desert sun. 

Hope on the Horizon

Still, as far as mining jobs go, some workers are waking up to the fact that the pay and benefits are worth the move. Certainly, Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, believes the future of work lies in the past. “I’ve been hearing for years that robots are going to wreck blue-collar work. Turns out AI is coming for your white-collar job,” says Rowe.

Indeed, AI is putting dozens of career fields at risk, and so far, mining, trade jobs, and agricultural-related careers are among the least affected. With white-collar jobs under fire, college prices soaring, costs of living in cities becoming outlandish, and college grads struggling to pay off debt, those good-paying rural careers (most of which don’t require a degree) are starting to look better and better! The key is raising awareness by spreading the word!