OSAGE —Rural sociologist Ben Winchester said small town Iowans should not be concerned about a “brain drain” as much as what they decide to do with their “brain gain.”
Winchester does not dispute that 18-25-year-olds are leaving small towns for other areas, many of them to metro areas.
What is not readily understood is that while 18-25-year-olds leave small towns — a natural consequence of college and single years — 30-45-year-olds are moving to them.
And those are the ones we should care about more, he said.
“Losing young people is the rule, not the exception — don’t beat yourself up because it’s been that way for 80 years,” he said.
“And it is not a measure of failure; it is a measure of the success of our school system” that allows students to attend college.
Winchester spoke Tuesday to an audience of city and county officials, as well as members of economic development groups at the Cedar River Complex in Osage.
The event was sponsored by Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center in Mason City.
Winchester said long-held beliefs about the loss of rural population are peppered with inaccuracies.
School consolidations, closing of churches and some business are not new — that has been occurring since 1950. The partnership of agriculture and small towns has changed dramatically, with only 5 percent of small towns today tied to agriculture.
Even adding ag-related businesses to the mix raises that to 7 percent.
America’s small towns are not losing population, but gaining numbers — and that has been happening since 1970s, he said.
Winchester said nationally, 2.2 million Americans moved from a metro county to a non-metro county between 1990 and 1999; that trend seems to be continuing.
What has declined is the relative percentage to overall population, he said. If there was the continual decline everyone talks about, “where are all the dead towns? If these trends were so ... all-inclusive ... then show me all the small, dead towns,” he said.
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Instead, a rural renaissance is taking place, a “newcomer” trend of 30-year-olds who, according to surveys, want smaller communities that they believe provide a better quality of life, including a slower pace, a safer environment and less expensive housing.
Those who come to the small towns at that age are real “brain gains.” Winchester said they are educated — 43 percent have college degrees — and often become small business owners. They sometimes leave careers to move, or are underemployed.
“The quality of life is the trump card,” Winchester said.
And that, he said, should be instructive to economic development and Chamber of Commerce officials to understand their newcomers. Tapping into that demographic, and its needs, will give a town to position itself for the trend.
“Studies have shown that people don’t just look at one town, they look at four or five,” he said.
Winchester also asked that the group understand that “brain drain” is a relative term.
In India, he said, officials are worried that their upper level students and highly skilled employees are leaving the country — to come to America.
“In some countries, ‘brain drain’ has a whole different meaning,” he said.
Other facts about ‘Brain Gain’
• With each newcomer moving to town, it is estimated that $120,000 is funneled into the economy.
• A Pew Center survey found 51 percent of Americans would prefer to live in a small town or in a rural area.
• America is highly mobile, far more than people might think. Life transitions — new jobs, children entering school, retirement —tend to spark population moves. Even though 30-45-year-olds move to smaller towns, studies show they begin to move again after 50 — when their children have graduated from high school or college.
• Small towns successful in attracting the newcomer population will be those who work with a regional mindset.