Over the last five months, the pandemic has demonstrated how vulnerable our rural communities have become as a result of the lack of infrastructure such as good broadband, access to local services and the supply of basic daily needs, such as food.
In recent years, there has been a steady depopulation of young people from rural areas and strategies used so far, have failed to stem the flow. From Covid-reflections research we’ve carried out as part of the Rural Youth Project, we have found that, during lockdown, many under 30s have returned to their rural homes, preferring to move back to be with family or friends, and it is clear there is a new sense of ownership and commitment to rural areas. My hope is that young people will be an important catalyst for rural economies and communities to not just survive, but thrive.
Whilst we don’t know the full extent of the impact, we do know that socially, economically and in terms of mental health, the experience of 2020 will leave a lasting memory for many. The transition back to “normality” is something that some young people are fearing while others are looking forward to with optimism, seeing opportunity. The ability to work from home with flexible hours, the development of virtual meetings reducing travel time, and the new enthusiasm for participating in online training, are just some of the changes seen as positive.
Creating businesses and social enterprises is key to this growth, with a growing number of the next generation inspired to take the risk and become their own boss. Just last month, Twitter released a report that found 54% of users between the age of 18 to 24 had found a new way to make money in lockdown.
Food Punks in the Scottish Borders is an innovative social enterprise that empowers young people through the appreciation of food. The income generating social enterprise from Tweeddaale Youth Action, started by teaching young people to cook, but soon evolved into a catering business servicing the south of Scotland. Now funded by Scottish Borders LEADER and the Robertson Trust, all profit generated goes back into youth work and services for young people, benefiting the local economy and the health and wellbeing of its residents.
Whilst our research has demonstrated the majority of young people do not want to move to a town or city to live or work, it has also shown that rural communities, can at times, be too cliquey and unwelcoming, and if we are to take the positives from pandemic, we must embrace this new era, new businesses and new perspectives.
Rebecca Dawes is the Next Generation Trustee for the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth, and Director of the Rural Youth Project. The report looking at the impact of covid-19 to young people can be downloaded from www.ruralyouthproject.com