Young people's strategies for social and economic integration in rural areas

Paper to the Nordic Theme Conference, Vaasa, Finland, 4-6th October 2001;
"Children and Youth in Rural Areas - Nordic and European Perspective"

by Ingrid Machold and Thomas Dax
Bundesanstalt für Bergbauerfragen, Wien

Rising unemployment and depopulation trends in peripheral rural areas turned the attention of policy analysis to limited opportunities experienced by young people living in rural areas. The results presented are drawn from the EU-project "Policies and Young People in Rural Development" under the 4th Framework Programme (FAIR6 CT-98-4171) where different aspects of economic and social integration and exclusion of young people in rural areas have been analysed in seven European countries.
Following the qualitative methods applied in the project the paper focuses on young people's views of what they perceive as reasonable options under the various regional contexts. The paper starts with a short presentation of main project findings, concentrating primarily on the situation in the Austrian study area. This includes the views of young people both on educational and labour market conditions and on their involvement in the regional social system. Analysis suggest that there are mainly three strategies young people use to cope with their situation of limited opportunities living in a peripheral rural area: mobilisation, adaptation and out-migration. However, the variety of nuances in between these options is large and must not be underestimated. Beyond that, the decisions are not just affected by opportunities but influence how and what young people realise as choices. Personal assessment, early life experience in family and the value system in a close society shape the capability to retain and accept specific choices or to refuse them as being adequate.


1. Introduction

Policies and their influence on opportunities of young people in rural areas have been of major interest in the EU research-project "Policies and Young People in Rural Development (PAYPIRD)" where seven European countries (Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, UK and Austria) analysed different aspects of economic and social integration and exclusion of young people.

While pathways young people actively or passivly choose are contingent upon specific situational and structural factors, most young people are by and large fairly conventional in their behaviour, most of the times and their way of action has to be seen within the circumstances of the dominant culture in the region (Wyn and White 1997).

This paper provides some background information about the local education and labour market situation and conditions of participation in society in a specific rural area in Austria. The focus is on the views of young people, it tries to give some insight into the strategies young people perceive as useful and essential considering their personal future in or outside the region.

2. Methodological aspects

The empirical study is primarily based on qualitative research elements, i.e. semi-structured individual interviews with young people between 16 and 25 years (including a short questionnaire) and subsequently focus group discussions of the same age group. Interviews and focus groups were carried out between December 1999 and March 2000. The methods were selected as appropriate research instruments to gain sufficient insight into and comparability between various groups of young people.

Given the nature of the study, the qualitative approach was central to the interview design to allow young people express their experiences and attitudes and elaborate on aspirations and prospects. In addition, a series of experts' interviews has been used as information source and interpretive element for the analysis of the regional context report, to add their viewpoint to the understanding of rural youth problems and existing realisation of relevant policies and actions.

Each member state selected a study area following the typology of the EU-commission, reflecting the diversity of rural areas conditions across the EU. In the Austrian case the empirical study was carried out in a peripheral mountain region, the study area of Murau, Styria. This region is particularly characterised by its remoteness and low population density and a weak performance of almost all economic sectors. In relation to other comparable regions the situation seems to have even deteriorated over the last decades. Up to the last decade (1981 - 1991) the high birth rate made up for the persistently negative migration balance, but as population scenarios point out, the share of young people will considerably decrease from 16.4% in 1991 to 10.6% in 2021.

Murau is off the main transit routes and hardly connected to the train network, which has had a restrictive effect on industrial development. The lack of regional dynamics is revealed through a rather slow shift of economic activities from primary (and secondary) sector(s) to service activities. It thus is one of the few Austrian regions with still a considerable share of agricultural labour force (20% in 1991), on the other hand tourism is still of minor importance than would be expected in such a mountain region.

3. Education and labour market conditions for young people

With regard to the educational and labour market conditions one can refer to Murau as an area of rather restricted opportunities for young people. Though the employment situation is not marked by obvious problems of outstanding urgency there are some significant developments worth to take a closer look.

In the 1970s Austria has shown strong efforts to increase the educational level of rural areas through a significant and rapid extension of school infrastructure at that period. In many respects this policy reached its aim by diminishing the gap between urban and rural educational levels. In particular, education for women has increased - but unfortunately until now this had not the same consequences on the women labour market.

However, later the participation of young people aged 15 - 24 in education has not continued to progress at the same speed and even stagnated over the 1980s. In Murau only a proportion of about 20% young men and of 28% young women are in education, which is quite modest in an international comparison.

There are two types of high schools in the district of Murau which lead to the qualification certificate enabling to study at the university: Professional high school for domestic education and the general high school, both located in the capital of the district. Other types of schools are located in the neighbouring regions and in the next province of Carinthia (such as gymnasium, technical high schools, commercial high schools). This limited regional school offer is determining the choice of schools for the interviewees. Like it is an unquestioned behaviour in such a region to attend the nearest compulsory school, interviewees orient themselves along regional offers for secondary schools, attaching a decisive role to the possibility of reaching schools.

"Well, I would say, the opportunities of education are really restricted in our district. Because with us there is only the general high school, there are no other schools like commercial or technical high schools. You have to commute to another district or to the capital of styria. I think this is the main problem. (…) I have thought about it to attend a highschool outside the district, but if I have one hour or one and a half hours driving time every day, I attend the high school in Murau." (Konstantin, 18 years, male)

Besides the regional school offer traditional aspects influence young peoples' school decision. For example most farms are handed over to their male heirs, so primarily males are visiting agricultural schools, while school education for women is characterized mainly by domestic schools (9th class level) and professional high schools for domestic education. These qualifications don't seem to help significantly in job search in the district, as it will be pointed out below.

In general participation in education and vocational training is characterised by gender specific patterns and attitudes. Women are more involved in formal higher education, men tend to participate in dual vocational training and thus take advantage from a better integration into the regional labour market. Only a third of young women can manage to find a place of apprenticeship in the study area, while about 60% of young men participate in apprenticeship and thus take advantage from a better integration into the local labour market.

In addition gender specific patterns appear when analysing the offered and selected apprenticeship placements. About 53% of male apprentices concentrate on 10 professions, whereas 78% of the female apprentices account for the 10 most often selected professions, which are moreover of a rather similar kind and mostly in service branches. The division between the male sphere of craft and the female sphere of services has perpetuated for a long time and there is still very little change in gender patterns. Although there are complaints about the shortage of apprenticeship places in general, the situation for young women seem to be even worse. In traditional female professions training places are rare, in traditional male professions female aspirants get no access, even if they show an interest in that kind of work. The separation of the labour market by gender has been addressed by some young women, but usually is immediately pushed back as awkward view where no acitivities could be taken within the region.

"Interviewee: … And Bricklayers, for example, they almost take no girls.

Question: Did you apply for (such an apprenticeship)?

Interviewee: No, I did not. But my father is bricklayer and he said, they don't take girls, because there is simply not the output there." (Susanne, 16 years, female)

Others even have tried to enter such branches, with no success:

"For example, the last time I wrote an application for becoming a paintress; there I received immediately a negative reply, it did not even take two days. And a boy friend of mine has also written (to them), then it was said, yes, he should come for an interview with the company. I find that sort of …" (Evelyn, 16 years, female)

Labour market characteristics are, moreover, rather unfriendly for young people. This goes hand in hand with low paid jobs in the region. Besides jobs in agriculture, forestry, craft and some jobs in the service sector and tourism, the demand, especially for young people with higher education, is rather small. Work experience is of great importance at the job search, thus young people can not rely on high education to secure adequate jobs in the region. In their opinion high school education doesn't help very much in finding a job in the district, employers tend to prefer apprentices.

The rather tight situation of the local labour market can also be derived from the high (and still increasing) number of commuters in the region. Young people have to take up jobs increasingly at a distance where daily commuting is not feasible. In Murau the share of non-daily commuters has reached about 30% in 1991 and for young people between 16 and 25 years it is significantly higher with almost 39%.

The extremely high pressure on young people to commute to jobs outside the study area has a detrimental impact on the job and life perspectives of young people in the greater region.

4. Participation in public life

From the outset of the study aspirations and decisions of young people have been seen as an outcome of economic and social aspects. The empirical work thus tried to enlighten some elements of the social dimension, which tend to be overlooked when addressing exclusion issues. Hence, one of the central issues of the study was the investigation of participation of young people in rural areas in community life. It became clear quite soon that participation has to be understood not in a strict, limited sense of local/regional action but in various kinds of more general participation in different aspects of local society.

The recognition that public activities are heavily influenced by social factors, shaped to a considerable extent by family and social networks influences, had an impact on the analysis: It tried to look also on specific general societal forces, and particular features and attitudes of groups of young people.

One of the most outstanding findings is that the interviewees are considerably fond of the region, despite the economic weakness and remote location. The experience of a "pristine" nature is widely taken as attribute for good health, landscape scenery and sports facilities. Young people are conscious of living in a very special environment and they are mostly proud of it, also in the case when planning to leave the region.

The other dominant impression is a wide-spread feeling of warmth and security and high degree of confidence provided through the fact that "everyone knows everybody". It is an attitude as common that it can be interpreted as a "cultural" trait and common resentment against the anonymity in cities. The intensity and reliability of social contacts within a community is perceived very positively - on the one hand. But the positive image of small communities can easily turn into a disadvantage when young people feel restricted and hindered by the strict forms of social control.