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For years, rural areas and small towns consistently lost some of their most talented young people, who moved to urban centers. But recent census data indicates that this “brain drain” phenomenon is subsiding as both millennials and more Americans of all ages are increasingly choosing to live in suburbs and smaller cities. Jeffrey Brown travels to Montana to find out what's driving the migration.
For years, rural and small towns have been experiencing a brain drain, as some of their most talented young people move to more urban areas.
But recent census data has shown that millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, are increasingly choosing to live in suburbs and smaller cities.
Jeffrey Brown traveled to Montana to hear why.
I have to talk strategy with you for a minute.
For Karoline Rose, it's just another day at the office.
Fall 2020 production sale. You click, and it pulls up.
The 27-year-old is the founder of a digital consulting and agricultural marketing company near Toston, Montana, population 108.
The town of Toston isn't much. If you blink, you kind of miss it.
Not a typical setting for a millennial CEO, perhaps, but with clients across much of rural America, she's not only surviving, but thriving, in a place where cows outnumber people.
Rose started KRose Company in 2015 and began using social media to do what her family has always done, sell cattle.
So we listed them, and they sold it in about six minutes. And I called my dad on the phone and I said, I have something.
And I was actually the first company to sell cattle on social media that we know of.
But her dad, John Rose, who has been in this business in Montana since the 1980s, was initially skeptical.
Agriculture's still very much a handshake business. And she came home and said, we're just going to put them on Facebook or the Internet, and we're going to sell cattle. I said, that — there's no way that's going to happen.
I said, it just is not what agriculture in the West is. And she said, oh, yes, we can do that.
Karoline's success is no surprise to Ben Winchester, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. He's been documenting rural population trends for more than 25 years and says young adults are increasingly coming to these areas for the cheaper cost of living and new opportunities.
You can be a doctor in a rural community. You can be an editor for a newspaper in a rural community. You can be a book publisher. You can be electrical engineer.
While not every town will have that diversity of employment or occupation, when you start putting together five to seven counties, you have got the same diversity in a rural region that you find in the metropolitan area.
And according to the latest census data, millennials are no longer finding metropolitan areas as attractive as they once did.
Collectively, large U.S. cities lost nearly 30,000 millennials in 2018, the fourth consecutive year the population of young adults declined. And it's not just millennials.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that, while 80 percent of all Americans live in urban areas, rural life is most desired. All this is fueling migration to places like Bozeman, Montana, now one of the fastest growing small cities in the nation.
Dr. Meghan Johnston grew up in Montana and settled in Bozeman after finishing her residency in Seattle.
Dr. Meghan Johnston:
I live five minutes from here. My day care is five minutes from here. So I can run out of here at 5:20. I can pick up my kids and go home for dinner and be home at 5:35.
And I know my good friends that live in Seattle that, logistically, is so much more challenging. So, I think the quality of life here is just — it's just easier.
Dr. Johnston also trains medical students like Ezekiel Sharples, who has another reason for staying. Nearly 80 percent of rural America is classified as medically underserved, and Sharples says his hometown of Chinook in Northern Montana remains without a doctor.
Almost everywhere in Montana is like that. All these small towns are either single-physician or no-physician towns.
And so kind of that experience growing up gave me this drive to go back and kind of be part of solving that issue, I guess.
Ben Winchester sees a pattern.
So, millennials especially, they're starting to hit the same trends that we had seen in other generations, which is, again, as you age and you start to gain some stability, that you start to question some of the facts of your life.
Of course, moving to a more rural life hardly guarantees success.
Well, you have some towns that — quote, unquote — "succeed" and other towns that fail.
And what we find is that really the biggest differential in communities is social capital. And it is, how well do people work together?
Another factor, cultural life. Bozeman may not have the nightly high-profile music and arts scene of a larger city, but it does have Live From the Divide.
Started with the intention of just creating a place for songwriters to have a place where they could play their songs and people would respect that, but listen.
Thirty-five-year-old Jason Wickens is a singer-songwriter from Central Montana. He lived briefly in Nashville, but decided to come back home, and now runs a music venue, where national touring acts can play to small, intimate crowds.
So, when did you realize that you could give it a go here in Montana?
If you're in Nashville or New York or L.A., it is hard. Like, I would say it's a lot harder, depending on what your…
Harder because it's expensive?
It's expensive. It's way more cutthroat. You have to really be a hustler. And there's nothing wrong with any of those things.
For me, I just — I had no interest in even trying to make it work there, because I wanted to be back in the culture that inspired me in my music and to do the things I wanted to do.
Back on her family's ranch, Karoline Rose says she's now buying, selling and marketing cattle to more than 300 clients in 12 states.
And she has this advice for those who might want to try making it in places like this:
It's really important that, when you move into rural America, that you get out and you know the community and you show up, but also that you're different, and you bring your skills and your knowledge to the table, because that's what we need and that's what we're looking for.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Montana.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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