‘Brain Gain’ study: People in 30s, 40s still moving to rural Minnesota

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Although the pace has been slowed by an economy that discouraged mobility, people in their 30s and 40s have continued to move to parts of rural Minnesota that otherwise are characterized by populations that are aging and declining, new research shows.

In a study published online today by University of Minnesota Extension, rural sociologist Ben Winchester reports that trends he identified earlier from 1990 and 2000 censuses continue in numbers from the 2010 census.

One shift in the first decade of this century is that even in some outstate counties — those around Willmar, Mankato and Marshall, for example — people entering their middle years are moving to more rural counties. In his earlier research, that trend mainly involved people that age leaving the Twin Cities metro area for the rest of the state.

The results add nuance to larger trends of population decline, young people leaving and elderly populations increasing in rural areas. You can find examples and videos of what people in our Public Insight Network told us about going rural by visiting this post.


“While we lose the kids, we gain the people aged 30 to 49 and a lot of these people coming into our rural communities are arriving with high levels of education, with earning power, with experience and with children,” Winchester said. “It’s counterintuitive.”

Winchester’s new study, “Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers,” found similar trends outside Minnesota but cited housing debt and the recession as reasons migration generally slowed down in the country.

The report notes that the “brain drain” of young people continues as people aged 18 to 25 leave home for college and broader horizons. But at the same time, the study found, almost all rural counties in Minnesota saw the number of people in their 30s and 40s rise above what would have been expected had no one moved in. This is a phenomenon Winchester has termed the “brain gain” because it represents people whose careers are in full swing and who bring skills and education to an area.

One example: In Lac qui Parle County in western Minnesota in 2000, there were 883 people between 20 and 39. Ten years later, the county’s overall population dropped by 10 percent to 7,259. But that subgroup — in research language the “cohort” that was by then 30 to 49 years old — had increased by 15 percent to 1,016. That increase represents the “brain gain.”

“I really do feel it,” said Pam Lehmann, economic development director for the county. “It feels very much like the existing businesses that are transitioning are transitioning to younger generations.”

The lumberyard in Dawson is now run by a young man who moved back to town, she said. “Perfect example of a local boy who went to school, started a career, had a baby and had an opportunity to come home and purchase a thriving business. His wife was not from the area. Both are happy they bought the business and a new home. They’ve really taken root.”

State demographer Susan Brower, who wasn’t involved in the research, said she found the results interesting. “This story gets masked by overall population trends.” Nonetheless, she said, “there’s still population loss just because of the huge out-migration among young people.”

Winchester doesn’t dispute that. “The kids leaving our communities certainly outnumber those returning.” But he thinks the research provides a lesson for rural communities that want to tap into some people’s desires to go rural, provided they can “get themselves on the map” for potential new residents.

Why are people moving to rural areas? Typically not for jobs. In surveys of residents who have moved to rural areas and among Public Insight Network members, people cited what they perceive as a higher quality of life, a slower pace, greater security, lower housing costs and a better place to raise children.

“I was born and raised in Minneapolis and did not want to move to a small town,” June Kallestad, who moved to Cloquet from the Twin Cities in 1993 when her husband found a job there, told us. “I thought people would be small-minded (in some ways I still see that, but there are small minded people in Minneapolis, too!) and there would be nothing to do. I found out that I LOVE the woods and outdoors. Didn’t know that about myself.”

Karen Tolkkinnen, a Twin Cities native who lives in Clitherall in Otter Tail County, said, “It’s so easy to feel part of the community. You can move to a rural area and it’s not long before you’re in the grocery store and recognize that lady from church or that guy from the play you saw last weekend. City life can be pretty anonymous, but in the country, you might actually have gone to school with the EMT who gives you CPR, or be an ex-in-law to the township clerk. This familiarity can be good or bad, but so far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

But not everything goes well. Alyssa Besonen, among those leaving Willmar for a smaller town, Madison, said, she and her husband wanted to simplify their lives. But “it has been a much more difficult transition than I anticipated. Many people who are here grew up and have family connections.”

Said Dave Konshok, who moved to his childhood home of Park Rapids after 20 years in the Air Force: “Without a doubt, the biggest challenge of living in rural areas or small towns is economic: making enough money to survive and thrive. It’s very unlikely a high-paying job will even exist, let alone be handed to you. You have to dial down your financial expectations, while at the same time be ready to do whatever it takes to survive financially. What I like best about small town life is convenience – everything is close by, whether that’s the grocery store or walking paths through the woods. I also love that strong sense of community rarely found elsewhere.”

(For a summary of what Public Insight Network members told us and even a couple videos people made for us, see this post by reporter Jennifer Vogel. You can find more comments in this post. And you can even see a couple video rural residents sent us here. Feel free to add your own.)

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