The rural exodus

Robert de Graeff, Senior Policy Advisor, European Landowners' Organization

Tuesday, Jan 26, 2021

The European countryside remains locked into a long, slow spiral of decline, emptying out since the end of World War II. As agriculture has steadily decreased as a percentage part of its Member State’s economies and mechanization has taken over more and more of the daily labour needs, people have left the countryside. The village life so often celebrated in European tourist brochures is increasingly becoming a performance put on for visiting tourists, rather than a lived reality for many. Most worrying is the age skewing in rural areas which are fast becoming older as the young leave for educational and career opportunities in Europe’s urban cores.

The numbers bear out this exodus; from just under 42% in 1960 to around 25% in 2019
(1) rural areas are emptying out significantly. In the latest Eurostat data, we can see that just 30% of Europe lives in rural areas. They are also the least likely (at 30%) to have university degrees or tertiary education, and have the highest relative risks of poverty and social exclusion. In addition to these demographic worries is the overall lack of basic technological aptitude, with only 48% of those in rural areas feeling comfortable with basic IT skills.

This trend of rural depopulation is a vicious circle of decline. Those who move out of rural areas are mostly the younger generations – looking for educational and job opportunities in the growth areas of the urban cores. Once they leave and establish lives in the cities, they do not, as a rule, return to village or countryside life. This decreases birth rates, which in turn has a negative impact on natural growth, an ageing population, and lower economic dynamism. As these trends harden and set in, the appeal of such areas for young people diminishes . Demographic decline is followed by economic decline, followed by further demographic decline and so forth.

A further victim of this vicious circle is the decline of services and infrastructure. As rural populations age and decline, there is less national interest in maintaining schools, police stations and other services, and less desire for new people to come in and take over existing shops or open new ones. This leads to both an eradication of existing village life as traditional hubs fall away, and to an overall decline in the standard of living in the area. Once again, these trends are self-reinforcing and contribute strongly to the emptying of the countryside.

Furthermore, we must see the move away from rural areas as part of a larger transformation of the global economy. Only a small number of areas are able to use the opportunities offered by globalization – those in either strategic locations such as ports, or existing, dominant urban landscapes where the service industry thrives. The austerity policies and narratives of the last decade have further exacerbated these tensions, as budget cuts to services and unemployment payments were felt disproportionally in rural areas that saw a further dwindling of both state-funded services as well as reduced economic activity.

However, we cannot create one universal ‘European countryside’ and set it against a “European urban landscape”. A distinction must at least be made between the ‘near’ countryside that is closer to the urban cores and easily accessible by both car and public transport, and the ‘far’ or remote countryside that is geographically far removed, difficult to access, and more difficult to provision.

As house prices in urban cores continue to rise and average living spaces continue to shrink, a new generation of young people and parents will move out to the ‘near’ countryside in search of both space and affordability. In such cases, the dominant mode of economic production in these areas can shift away from traditional countryside drivers such as farming and more towards a ‘sleeper’ model where city incomes are imported and bring new life to existing villages. However, such a demographic shift will also fundamentally change the tone and culture of rural life in communities as they will naturally begin to more closely resemble the urban atmosphere in which these new immigrants have had their education and first professional opportunities.

The challenges faced by the ‘far’ countryside are a significantly more severe version of those outlined above. With no geographical ability to link its inhabitants to cities, poor connectivity, and a rapidly aging and reduced population, they remain economically dependent on primary production which – as stated – is increasingly more mechanized. Furthermore, there is the additional problem of finding job opportunities not just for those who wish to move there, but also for the partners of those who stand to inherit existing farms. As the ‘far’ countryside cannot turn itself into a rural annex of the urban core, it will either need to be significantly and permanently supported to ‘keep people where they are’, or other means will have to be found to maintain both the culture and inhabitants of these regions.

In the case of both the near and far countryside, there is stress not just regarding economic prosperity but also potentially the reservoir of social and cultural capital, which, in turn and on the longer term, may be expected to undermine the community’s capacity to act and regenerate.

To reverse the rural exodus, significant long-term investment and support will be needed to increase not only the attractiveness of rural living, but to create new opportunities that will either keep the children of these locales in place, but preferably attract new migrants (both internal and external to the nation). Among the support networks to be regenerated are first and foremost services; rural schools, hospitals, paramedical (to respond to the aging population), police and fire stations – near taken for granted in the urban core – have faced significant cuts and closures. Again, there is a negative spiral; as the population shrinks, services decline, which creates a negative perception for possible migrants.

Restoration of such services can be at a smaller scale, but will be an investment in the short and medium term that will not bring a quick return and state budgets should be clear about this from the outset. An emphasis should be placed on services with a multiplier effect such as local schools, which not only increase rural viability but also create new jobs. However, care must be taken to not just build infrastructure and forget the people needed to make it work – attracting new teachers and other necessary staff to run a school or community centre is just as important as construction.

Second, especially from the perspective of working life during and (presumably) post-Coronavirus, there are still significant portions of the countryside in Europe – and even greater swathes beyond – that are in urgent need of high speed broadband internet cables to be laid. Without this, there is little possibility of creating long-distance work opportunities or for startups with a digital aspect to flourish in the countryside.

Additionally, transport links to smaller communities – very often cut over the last decades as part of efficiency drives – need to be funded and restored not just to create ease of access, but greater facilities for the growing elderly community in rural areas. There are many further concepts that can be taken further such as increasing social acceptance of new migrants, social programs to enhance and revive local traditions, reduced administrative barriers to support schemes that allow more people to access them, and a host of other programs.

Fundamentally, the rural exodus is inextricably linked to the global shift away from primary production and into a service economy. Without intervention, such services will cluster around greater population densities and create a ‘positive spiral’ where increased services will create more jobs, which in turn will attract more people who will need more services. Without focused intervention and especially funding that is understood to be a “loss leader”, it is difficult to see how this seemingly inexorable trend can be significantly reversed.

That said, the future of long-distance work, attractive house prices as well as a (perceived) better quality of life will remain a powerful draw for many. It will remain to be seen whether this draw will be materially supported.

(1) World Bank. Rural Population (% of Total Population) in the EU


Robert de Graeff
Senior Policy Advisor
European Landowners’ Organization


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