We are in the middle of the greatest human migration the world has ever seen: the movement of people from rural to urban areas.
By 2050, the United Nations estimates that around 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban environments. Across the planet, this trend is emptying rural areas of talent, youth and capital. As youth packs its bags for the cities, the demographics of the bush change.
Outside the big regional centres — and sometimes inside them — we grow older, less educated, less employed and less employable.
Arguments for the superior lifestyle and affordability of country life are not enough. If you want a cheap home, space and fresh air, there are any number of attractive villages in countries like Italy, Spain, the United States, Japan, and yes, Australia, where bargains are to be had.
But these bargains don’t usually include the opportunity for well-rewarded work, good services or, sometimes, much in the way of society. The energy is draining from rural areas. There is an exception: Greece. Greece’s economic catastrophe is driving young people back to the land.
The national unemployment rate for people under 25 is 48 per cent — but there has been a 15pc increase in Greek farmers aged 18 to 40 since the start of the economic crisis in 2009.
Obviously, this is not a model of regional renewal that we want to follow. But the reporting around this reverse migration has a refrain: if the young people returning to the land are not necessarily finding wealth, they are finding new sources of happiness.
Happiness is an elusive quality, and not something that is easily engineered. It’s easier to identify its opposite: the unhappiness of the urban commute, a crippling mortgage, weekend boredom.
Our challenge in the Australian bush is to provide an environment in which happiness is possible. Not the cheesy happiness of a TV ad, but the happiness of social connection, financial opportunity, space — and good coffee! Regional development tends to be defined by economics and politics.
Perhaps if we start thinking about people instead, our strategies will be built on something enduring – the human quest for happiness combined with a good job with fair pay or creating a new business – rather than on short-term cycles and abstract theories.
It’s worth thinking about.
- Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer and as managing director of communications company Sefton & Associates.