Structurally weak, that's what we call rural areas where nothing is going on anymore. Villages are populated predominantly by pensioners, where there is no longer any work, no bakery, no grocery store, no doctor, no fire department. Rural areas all over Europe are suffering from declining populations as more and more people are drawn to the big cities.
Between 2015 and 2020, 355 of 406 mostly rural regions in the EU recorded more people moving out than in, according to the EU authority Eurostat. The number of young people and people of working age declined the most sharply. By contrast, the number of people aged 65 and older in those rural regions rose by an average of 1.8% each year.
The consequences are serious. Cities are becoming more crowded and life more expensive. Housing is scarce and pressure is growing to build on every last inch of green space. In rural areas, on the other hand, job vacancies and the feeling of being left behind are growing.
Depopulation in eastern Germany
For three decades, internal migration in Germany only flowed in one direction: from the countryside to the cities. After German reunification in 1990, this was particularly true of the eastern German states, which in some rural areas experienced outright depopulation. The number of residents in cities such as Leipzig, Munich and Berlin, on the other hand, grew by well over 20% in some cases between 2000 and 2020.
But this trend appears to have stopped, as shown by federal and state statistics from 2008 to 2021. While students, trainees and foreigners continue to head for the cities, more and more people between the ages of 30 and 49 with children, and young professionals between the ages of 25 and 29 have been moving to the countryside since 2017.
Far beyond the suburbs
The Berlin Institute for Population and Development, a think tank studying demographic change and its consequences, has noted that more people are attracted by rural areas than before.
Together with the Wüstenrot Foundation, the think tank has analyzed statistical data and examined the consequences of changing migration patterns in Germany. In 2021, around two-thirds of rural communities achieved migration gains, says social psychologist Frederick Sixtus of the Berlin Institute. A decade earlier, that was true for only about one in four rural communities.
Cheaper living space, more nature
As part of their analysis of migration patterns, the researchers spent a week visiting six communities in different rural areas throughout Germany currently experiencing significant growth and held many discussions there.
"I made a conscious decision to go to the countryside because the communities there are more closely knit," one village newcomer is quoted as saying in the study. "And I'll be honest, if you want to build, cost is obviously a big issue. And of course, that's very different in the countryside."
In many interviews, the researchers learned that what people are looking for above all is more and cheaper space to live, more nature, and less pollution.
Fast internet and childcare are a must
The option of working from home on a daily basis or even entirely means more people accept longer commutes to the city.
"The absolute necessity of living in the same place as you work no longer exists," explains social psychologist Sixtus. "The COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered this trend."
What is important for newcomers is a functioning infrastructure, which above all includes fast internet.
"Sure, school, and kindergarten were things that just had to be there. Even if this had been the most beautiful and cheapest property in the world, that would have been a deal-breaker," one new resident is quoted as saying.
The different style of village life
The researchers also examined the impact on the influx of new residents on locals.
"A functioning village community is not a foregone conclusion," says Catherina Hinz, director of the Berlin Institute. "Newcomers and older residents have to actively shape how they live together."
Those who grew up in the countryside before leaving for life in big cities usually know what to expect. But the close-knit nature of village community life can take some getting used to.
"It wasn't easy in the beginning: everyone looks after everyone else. You don't have that in the big city. You're more anonymous there," one newcomer said.
"Everyone greets everyone on the street," said another. "That's a nice feeling, but you also had to get used to it at first."
Demographic turnaround still not in sight
A key role is played by local mayors who need to think long-term. Demographic change remains a problem even for places where more people are moving in than out. Even there, still more people are dying than are being born. Of the roughly 3,500 municipalities and municipal associations that recorded average migration gains across Germany between 2018 and 2020, around one-third decreased in size nevertheless.
Age-appropriate infrastructure is a must, the study concludes. New housing estates should not only be built on the outskirts of towns and cities, where the newcomers largely remain among themselves. The construction of apartment blocks — by no means common in the countryside — could provide an alternative living model for older people, meaning families could move into newly vacated detached houses.
This article was originally written in German.
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