Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Brains with feet...

A mobile society means people can move, if they want, to better their living.  It would appear at the top we are certainly becoming more restless.  After years of importing brainpower from Asia especially, the flow has reversed, turning our brain gains into a brain drain.
"What was a trickle has become a flood," says Duke University's Vivek Wadhwa, who studies reverse immigration.
Wadhwa projects that in the next five years, 100,000 immigrants will go back to India and 100,000 to China, countries that have had rapid economic growth.
"For the first time in American history, we are experiencing the brain drain that other countries experienced," he says.
Suren Dutia, CEO of TiE Global, a worldwide network of professionals who promote entrepreneurship, says the U.S. economy will suffer without these skilled workers. "If the country is going to maintain the kind of economic well-being that we've enjoyed for many years, that requires having these incredibly gifted individuals who have been educated and trained by us," he says.
Wadhwa surveyed 1,203 Indian and Chinese immigrants who had worked or been educated here before returning to their homelands and found the exodus has less to do with the faltering U.S. economy than with other factors:
Career opportunities. At NIIT, an information technology company based in New Delhi, about 10% of managers in India are returnees, mostly from the U.S., says CEO Vijay Thadani.
Most go into mid- to senior management and make "excellent employees," he says. "They're Indian, so they understand India, and they have lived outside the country."
China's government entices some skilled workers to return with incentives such as financial assistance and housing, says Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "China needs a lot of well-trained personnel" in fields such as finance and information technology, he says.
Quality of life and family ties. People return to India to reconnect with their families and culture, Dutia says. "They have a support system there, family and friends."
Purchasing power is greater, he says, which allows returnees to afford more luxuries than they did in the U.S. Dutia describes a complex of "magnificent homes" in Bangalore. In the club room, there were "all these Americans and Europeans and expats on the treadmills with iPhones, watching CNN and BBC," he says. "Things have changed."
Immigration delays. Multinational companies that belong to the American Council on International Personnel tell Executive Director Lynn Shotwell that skilled immigrants are discouraged by the immigration process, she says. Some can wait up to a decade for permanent residency, she says. "They're frustrated with having an uncertain immigration status," she says. "They're giving up." [More]

One possible consequence of this change is pressure on salaries for folks with the needed skills. This will only skew the education-based income inequality further, I would guess. It will also add fuel to rural America's own brain drain.

The most dramatic evidence of the rural meltdown has been the hollowing out—that is, losing the most talented young people at precisely the same time that changes in farming and industry have transformed the landscape for those who stay. This so-called rural "brain drain" isn't a new phenomenon, but by the 21st century the shortage of young people has reached a tipping point, and its consequences are more severe now than ever before. Simply put, many small towns are mere years away from extinction, while others limp along in a weakened and disabled state.
In just over two decades, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle through to Appalachia, lost 10 percent or more of their population. Nationally, there are more deaths than births in one of two rural counties. Though the hollowing-out process feeds off the recession, the problem predates, and indeed, presaged many of the nation's current economic woes. But despite the seriousness of the hollowing-out process, we believe that, with a plan and a vision, many small towns can play a key role in the nation's recovery.
Civic and business leaders in the places most affected by hollowing out will tell anyone willing to listen how it is their young people, not hogs, steel, beef, corn, or soybeans, that have become their most valuable export commodity. Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning observer of small town life, believes that any story of small-town America is, at its core, the story of the people who stay and the ones who go. Yet, what is different at this moment is how, in a postindustrial economy that places such a high premium on education and credentials, the flight of so many young people is transforming rural communities throughout the nation into impoverished ghost towns. A new birth simply cannot replace the loss that results every time a college-educated twentysomething on the verge of becoming a worker, taxpayer, homeowner, or parent leaves. And as more manufacturing jobs disappear every day, the rural crisis that was a slow-acting wasting disease over the past two decades has evolved into a metastasized cancer. [More]
I could have written about this same phenomenon forty years ago, and the trend has been unfazed by good times and bad, well-intentioned and well-funded measures, and relentless hand-wringing.  Somehow we can't get the image of idyllic small town America from our minds, and have decided it somehow represents the optimal choice of demographic dispersal.  But I'm no longer sure that is even close to the truth, much less real expectations.

The depopulation of my county (Edgar) is typical.
1969 - 21,752
2000 - 19,657
2007 - 18,831
I have wandered though various reactions to this very obvious trend in my life.  But after this long, it begins to dawn on you this is occurring for powerful reasons and strongly presages the future.

Maybe it's just mental adaptation, but I'm not quite as alarmed by it as I was. To begin with depopulation makes this area a great place to farm.  Let's face it, industrial ag works best all by itself without sharing roads or odors, to name two examples.

There is virtually no urban expansion pressure on farmland prices, other than secondhand 1031/investor bargain hunting. The tiny number of farmers exert oversized political influence, and the elderly population so typical of our very-low-cost towns make a pool of savings available for local banks to lend to agriculture.

So just speaking in terms of a good place to farm, this ain't the worst.  But what about the social aspects of withering communities?

I am worried about the schools. There are simply no resources to improve them and size alone rules out many advantages such as AP classes. In fact, the day may come when those who can affor better will consider boarding schools for promising students.  But that problem I lay squarely at the feet of the absolute refusal to consolidate even the high school level.  In short, our schools are failing because we prefer bad local schools to better schools 10 miles away, not because we don't have a manufacturing base.

The other problems of thin populations may be exaggerated.  Between phones and e-mail active friendship groups are possible. We drive 60 miles for dinner with friends without complaining.  Shopping has been largely replaced with Amazon, et al.

Even my church, which I had frankly given up on two decades ago, is showing remarkable grace is its quiet decline. Besides, given upcoming demographics, I'm not sure more population would be the answer there either.
In 1990, 8 percent of Americans reported that they had no religious beliefs. Twenty years later, that's 15 percent. But when you look at younger Americans, you see that the proportion of "nones" is reaching 22 percent. The 1990s were the boom years for the Nones; and a huge 35 percent of the new Nones are ex-Catholics. No doubt, some of this is a reflection of the sex abuse crisis. But the intellectual collapse of Christianity under the leadership of Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic theocons is surely relevant. The well-deserved inability of literalists to win many converts among educated people is also surely salient. The emergence of the politicized Christianist right - and its assault on Christianity as a freely chosen spiritual process - will surely lead to a continued and accelerating flight from organized religion.

But the Nones are not Ditchkins atheists. They express their position primarily as a form of skepticism and Deism. They are agnostics who do not dismiss the religious life but remain at a cool distance from it. This is, of course, one of the deepest American religious inheritances:
"American nones are kind of agnostic and deistic, so it's a very American kind of skepticism," says Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. "It's a kind of religious indifference that's not hostile to religion the way they are in France. Franklin and Jefferson would have recognized these people."

The study estimates that in twenty years, the Nones will make up 25 percent of Americans. [More]

So looking back over 60 years of concern over the "decline" of rural communities, I have mixed emotions. The futility of bucking this trend is now apparent, even for those towns that enjoyed a period of success.

The presence of a college, hospitals, and a significant government employer seems to be the key to those towns that are growing by cannibalizing places like Chrisman.  Meanwhile, my home area will be a place for the poor, elderly and agriculture - all of which have to be somewhere.  The idea we will reverse the loss of young bright minds is far-fetched, I think.

I like living here, and am willing to cope with the circumstances and manage the disadvantages.  And I have wearied of grieving over something that was lost fifty years ago.

[Thanks, Mark]


Anonymous said...

As a college-educated twenty-something who recently left my hometown rural area to for another rural area, I must say I can relate to some of this post. The truth is young people are a minority in many rural areas. We are out voted and thus do not hold the political power required to shape the area into something in which we can take pride. Yes, the rural community wants young families to move in, pay taxes, and contribute to the workforce. That eagerness changes when young families start asking for changes in school curriculum or city code. What can one expect when the average age of a county commissioner is 60 and the average age of a city council member is 50? And it isn’t for lack of involvement from the younger generation. I have witnessed political candidates my age labeled as “wet behind the ears” and “too young and inexperienced.” If rural communities wish to recruit and retain young families perhaps they should roll out the red carpet rather than erect a brick wall. I, like many people my age, have recognized my value as a taxable commodity. I will remain mobile until I find a place willing to accept more than just my tax dollars.

John Phipps said...


I appreciate your POV, but I hope you will let this experience abide reflectively as you pursue your dreams.

As many are finding, rural America looks different just a few years later. The obnoxious boomers are losing their desperate grasp on control, and should you ever find a time to rank deeper living above achievement, I hope you'll give the country another look.

By then, many more of the handicaps of rural America should be history as well.

Thanks for reading and your comments.

Bill Harshaw said...

Two points:

* We can't say that people returning to their country of birth means much until we know both the number coming to the U.S. and the number returning over the years. In a lot of prior migrations a high percentage of people have returned to the home country, sometimes simply as part of aging.
* Worry over the disadvantages of rural life for youth and the decline of the country life was well established by the time of Teddy Roosevelt's Country Life Commission. Like you, other than broadband everywhere, I don't see any magic bullets around.