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Christmas is the Only Time I'm Home

What happens to a community resilience when a town's young people leave?

Conversations about the impact of demographic change on community cohesion, more often than not, centre on growing ethnic diversity or rapidly increasing populations as migrant workers are hired in large numbers. But there are broader questions around demography and migration patterns that shape resilience in communities.

While this festive season saw most of us unable to meet family or have the old school mates Christmas eve reunion, Christmas is often the only time where many Britons ‘go back home’. This got us thinking about the relationship between Britons and their hometown and what role, if any, those of us who leave towns for core cities have to play in the resilience and cohesion of our homes.

Growing up and moving away isn’t a new phenomenon, but the decline of regional industries and huge expansion of (often city-based) higher education have really impacted the relationships many young people, especially graduates, have with their hometowns - and has meant that many communities are shrinking and ageing. Four in ten coastal communities are facing a long-term decline in young people, and research by the Centre for Towns found that between 1981 and 2011 our towns and villages saw the number of under 25s decrease by over one million.

A town that’s experiencing long-term issues with retaining its young people is, often, a town that’s less able to build resilience. Though research has shown that as young graduates (who tend to hold more socially liberal views) have fled towns, a concentration of ageing and less educated people (who tend to hold more socially conservative views) in a place has a social and political impact, it would be reductive to suggest that people who stay in their hometowns are inherently less able to create confident, resilient communities.

But losing young people on a large scale can also have an impact on a sense of place, and at its most dramatic can sap a town of its energy and feed an already fragile sense of place with economic and cultural decline. This feeds into wider narratives of hopelessness and loss - opening up vulnerability to division and anger that the far right can exploit space for the far right to thrive.

Towns that are shrinking and ageing face serious questions about what their future looks like. Our work on resilience in town communities has found that towns which are currently shrinking often face resilience challenges, with the population more likely to hold hostile attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism. These are usually places that are already small, often with fewer job opportunities - raising concerns over their ability to create solid identities or a sense of purpose.

This doesn’t mean that the answer is just to ask young people not to leave, or to treat a younger population as a goal in and of itself. To use the number of young people sticking around as a measure of success overlooks, for example, that the main reason for staying in your hometown is often how expensive it is to leave. As someone who grew up during the worst days of English Defence League activity in Luton, I saw firsthand that - if the sense of stagnation and lack of opportunity that drives a community’s young people away is still there - merely adding young people (particularly young men) to the equation can just bring a new energy to a place’s fears and resentments rather than easing them.

However, proactive policies that keep young people in towns - investment in local culture, digital connectivity, quality housing - are ones that also contribute to a sense of optimism and resilience in their own right. A study by The Prince’s Countryside Fund found that a lack of “good services, education, facilities and well-paid employment” are driving young people away from towns and preventing new people moving in - with particular emphasis on poor-quality (or non-existent) jobs, training, housing and transport.

This is not just about encouraging people to stay where they were born - policies that would address the economic and cultural issues driving young people out of towns would also attract new ones, and as such should be paired with a positive and confident story about migration. Better jobs, housing and public services are often pitched by the far right as inherent qualities of an area that are at risk of being overwhelmed by immigration, but as we see from the problems facing older, whiter towns, the relationship is far more cyclical than that.

The pandemic has made the long term movement of young people towards core cities less of a certainty, with the widespread shift to homeworking that’s set to continue well into 2021 and beyond. And while much of what a post-pandemic landscape will look like, there is potential for towns to capitalise on increasing flexibility over where people live and work.

At the same time, these patterns will be shaped by inequality and post-COVID life seems more likely to be defined by mass youth unemployment that forces people to live at home rather than a new age of spacious home working - an outcome that risks feeding resentment and hostility rather than soothing it. Addressing the flight of young people is not a straight forward task, but these demographic shifts are not something to be passive about if we are serious about fostering community resilience and freezing out the far right.


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