The 20th Century
In 1900, farming was the nation's biggest job category, employing 40% of the workforce. By the end of the century, only 2% of American workers made a living there.
Why did the rural workforce decline so much? In 1920, 36 million people, or 34% of the US population, still lived in rural counties. And their numbers did not diminish: by 2004, this rural population had grown to 50 million. But the urban population grew much faster, to 253 million. As a result, that 34% of the population down on the farm in 1920 shrank to 17% of the total eight decades later.
Such an enormous change had two big causes, each the product of technology. The first was a wave of mechanization that swept over agriculture and resource extraction, from gasoline-driven tractors and self-powered combines to electrical conveyors and mine ventilators. These boosted production enormously while simultaneously reducing the demand for labor and the economic prospects of rural laborers.
Fortunately, the same clanking, roaring, clattering wave was also bringing into being the modern factory, where demand for industrial labor drew people from the countryside in search of a higher standard of living. Farming, fishing, mining and oil drilling have a romantic aspect to those who have never done them, but they are hard and unforgiving labor offering volatile returns. Compared with wresting a living from the land, salaried days in a factory – even the dark and dangerous mills of the early 20th Century – proved irresistibly attractive.
The same story played out in every industrialized nation through 2000 and accelerated in the emerging market nations in the new millennium. Halfway through the 20th Century, according to the United Nations, 71% of the world's population lived in rural areas. Just sixty years later, in 2010, the percentage shrank to 49%, when a slim majority of the global population became urbanites. And that average number masks big differences. The more-developed regions led the way: their rural population fell from 47% to only 25%. But even in less-developed regions, with their much greater demand on agriculture to generate income, the rural population shrank from 82% to 55% of the whole.
The 21st Century
The challenges have only mounted in the new century. According to Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire, 36% of counties in the United States spent the first decade of the 21st Century "in a vicious and intractable cycle of population decline that demographers call 'natural decrease' – when more people die than are born. This compares to 29% of counties in the 1990s.
Natural decrease is a side-effect of economic success. It comes from our stunning success in making food production and resource extraction more productive. The number of hog farmers in Iowa dropped from 65,000 in 1980 to 10,000 in 2002 while the number of hogs per farm increased from 200 to 1,400. That’s great for pork consumers but not so good for hog farming as a profession. American mine operators and laborers declined 95% as a proportion of total employment from 1910 to 2000 due to advances in mining technology and mechanization. Australia’s coal-mining industry produced three times more coal per employee in 1997 (8,400 metric tonnes) than it did in 1980 (2,800 metric tonnes), a nearly 7% annual growth rate, while total employment shrank by 13%.
Rural America is not alone in wrestling with natural decline. In Mexico, 49% of the population was rural in 1960; by 2010, the percentage had dropped to 22%. Nigeria's rural population made up 84% of the total in 1960, but 50% in 2010. In China, the urbanization that took almost a century in the West has happened in the past few decades. In 1979, Shenzhen was a fishing village with 20,000 people. In 2009, it had a population of 9 million and $13,600 in per-capita income, just a bit less than Taiwan or South Korea. In 1979, 81% of Chinese lived in rural areas; by 2012, more than half of China's population was urban.
Impacts of Depopulation
For the rest, depopulation has had massive effects on the people who remain. The lack of high-quality job opportunities forces the brightest young adults to leave their communities in order to make a living. Once gone – involved in romantic relationships, making homes and raising families – few return. As the population shrinks, the tax and spending base supporting services, from schools to stores to cultural activities, gradually dwindles. Schools are consolidated, stores close up, cultural activities fade away – and each loss further erodes rural quality of life. Meanwhile, the rapid aging of the population puts greater strain on social services, which are increasingly hard to afford.
Some rural areas buck the trend. Those located within driving distance of an urban center can attract commuters and weekenders. Those with scenery, cultural or recreational attractions can balance local enterprise with income from tourism. Some hold onto a local manufacturing base or exploit geography to become transport and logistics hubs. But these opportunities are not available to all or even to most.
The Canadian Council on Learning reported in 2006 that students in rural Canada significantly underperform their urban peers. Secondary school dropout rates are nearly twice that of metro regions and the percentage of 25- to 54-year-olds with at least some post-secondary education is 10% below that of urban areas.
The European Commission has found the same patterns in its member countries. Rural areas within reasonable commuting distance of population centers have continued to grow as people move outward in search of affordable housing and a better quality of life. The rural coasts of Spain, Portugal and southern France have benefited from the migration of retired people with relatively high incomes. But communities without these advantages have found the going much harder. The welfare of rural areas in Sweden, the Czech Republic and Hungary are all threatened by the migration of young people to the cities. In Romania, only one-third of the rural population has access to the public water supply network, while rural Italy is sparsely served with railway connections, broadband connections, postal and banking services. Rural areas in Europe also tend to be poorer, with a higher percentage of manual workers and poorly-educated people. In Hungarian villages, more than 40% of the population has no educational qualifications at all.
An English Web site recounts the challenges of Tibenham, the seventh largest of 118 villages in South Norfolk, UK. Its population in 1845 was 749, and it was home to businesses including pubs, coal dealers, grocers, butchers and bakers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights, tailors and boot makers. By 1982, the population was 392, and the only village facilities still open were the Post Office Stores (what Americans would call a convenience store), a pub and a primary school with 2 teachers and 25 pupils.
What Kind of Future Do We Want?
“The race is not always to the swift nor battle to the strong,” wrote American journalist Damon Runyan, “but that’s the way to bet.” Left unchanged, these patterns of natural decrease could lead to a future very different from the past.
The more successful places will continue to attract money from nearby city dwellers, or provide the transport and manufacturing that keep them supplied. But for the rest, it is easy to imagine a bleak future: rural lands gradually transformed into highly automated factories where intelligent machines produce food and extract resources; production facilities surrounded by wilderness, served by rail and road but as sparsely populated by living, breathing humans as a silicon chip fabrication plant or robotic automotive assembly line. Those highly automated plants will have a place in rural areas as well but will contribute little in the way of employment.
It sounds impossible. But anyone who worked in the textile mills that once dominated the economy of the American South can imagine the possibility all too easily. There is a bitter joke told about the textile operations that still remain there, after the flight of production to cheaper locales. The joke explains that a modern textile plant can be run just by a man and a dog. The dog’s job is to keep intruders away from all the fancy machinery. The man’s job? To feed the dog.
We are granted not the future we would like but the future we can afford. If 80% of rich-world residents do indeed live in cities by 2030 – and another significant chunk of them occupy the surrounding suburbs and exurbs – the economic pressure to supply them from the land will be immense. That will demand higher and higher levels of productivity – getting more from the resources for less input of labor. If nothing changes, what other outcome is possible but an acceleration of the trends of the last century and a speeding up of the all-too-natural decline?
The author of the Tibbenham UK Web site proposes that rural residents resist this future by favoring local retailers, even if they charge higher prices, and joining local clubs and attending local churches, which are as affected by population decline as any other institution. Kind-hearted suggestions – but if the future of rural areas depends solely on good will and charitable intentions, they are doomed.