“When I was in high school,” the essayist Anne P. Beatty recently wrote, “ambition meant two things: escaping my hometown and becoming a writer”.
The idea that young people’s futures are best served by moving away from small towns and rural areas to big cities is deeply ingrained. The sociologist David Farrugia has described this as the “metrocentricity of youth”. However questions remain about whether moving away is always that easy and whether it is always the best way to achieve what you want in life.
I have researched how young people in rural communities in Scotland think about their future prospects. I have found that whether leaving your hometown is a good idea depends on both your aspirations and the resources you have.
This article is part of Fail Better, a series for those of us in our 20s and 30s about navigating the moments when things aren’t quite going as planned. Many of us are tuned into the highlight reel of social media, where our peers share their successes in relationships, careers and family. When you feel like you’re not measuring up, the pieces in this special Quarter Life series will help you learn how to cope with, and even grow from, failure.
How we make decisions about our lives
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identifies how our resources (which he terms “capitals”) provide us with certain opportunities. In his idea of “habitus”, meanwhile, he considers how our social environment influences the way that we see the world and the aspirations we develop. These ideas have been used to develop a theory of career development called “careership”.
Habitus helps to explain how the places we grow up in influence the kinds of futures we envisage: what we aspire to, not just in terms of employment, but also housing, family life, and community. Bourdieu’s wider concept of capital, meanwhile, can be used to explain how people have different abilities to move away from their home towns dependent on their financial resources, personal networks and previous experiences of mobility. This suggests that how we decide where to live is not always a simple choice. Our ideas emerge from our social context, and are shaped by the resources we have.
Research suggests that moving away from rural areas is particularly connected to entry to higher education. Canadian education scholar Michael Corbett has shown how doing well at school is likely to see you “learn to leave” your community. In places like the UK where going away to university is a longstanding tradition young people may also have the resources they need to move, in the form of grants or loans for study, among others. Here we can see how aspirations and resources combined provide opportunities for leaving.
Notably, however, research with young people from rural areas has shown that it is not the opportunities in themselves that explain why many leave their communities. Rather, moving away is associated with self-development, growing confidence and independence. This distinction is important. It shows how moving away might be something you choose to do for reasons other than simply accessing what might be considered the “best” opportunities.
Staying and returning
Despite the appeal of leaving, not all young people are able to, or want to move away from their hometowns. In fact, the evidence suggests that young people are increasingly staying at home for their studies or are returning home after they graduate.
I have found that in some cases choices to stay or return are positive choices, relating primarily to relationships and careers. Some young people choose to come back to be near family or to live with a partner, and “settle down”.
Returning home can also be a positive experience in relation to work. Graduates – especially in professions such as law, medicine and education – may find that their rural hometowns offer employment opportunities in line with their career aspirations.
Working in smaller places may also appeal to those who want to undertake work more connected to the community. Further, even though salaries may be higher in some large cities, housing costs can make living in regional locations more affordable.
Moving back home is not necessarily a positive thing though. Sometimes returning home is prompted by financial insecurity and difficulties finding work or accommodation elsewhere. Decision to return might also be prompted by difficult wider life circumstances, for example relationship break-ups or elderly relatives becoming ill. In my research, these experiences of return are especially challenging if young people perceive limited opportunities in their chosen careers in their hometown.
Previous research has shown that the “metrocentricity of youth” often influences how young people think about where to go and what to do. This runs the risk that returning (or staying) at home be positioned as a personal failure. However, on the contrary, staying or returning to a small community can be a positive choice. Besides, choices to stay or leave are often driven by circumstances beyond our control.
As life circumstances change, decisions to move or stay can be revisited. What you decide at one point in time will not necessarily shape your future forever.
Rosie Alexander does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.