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Small Towns Risk Losing Young People

Russian small towns risk being depleted of young people, as three-quarters of school leavers are planning to migrate to regional centres, Moscow or St. Petersburg in search of a better life, while just 4% are prepared to stay in their home communities.
Study's author
Julia Florinskaya, Senior Research Fellow of the HSE Institute of Demography.

Russia's small towns are facing the prospect of losing most of their young people, according to Florinskaya's study General School Leavers in Russia's Small Towns: Migrational and Occupational Preferences presented at the XVII April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development hosted by the HSE on April 19th to 22nd, 2016.

Eleventh-grade school students are choosing to live in big cities, such as regional centres, Moscow and St. Petersburg, which offer better opportunities for higher education, and even more importantly, a lucrative job and a comfortable life.

According to the study's author, the proportion of school leavers in small towns planning to migrate to big cities increased from 64% in 2004 to 75% in 2015, the share of those who intend to stay in their hometown dropped by 3.5 times from 14% in 2004 to an almost negligible 4% in 2015, while those still undecided remained approximately constant, changing from 21% to 22%.

It is also noteworthy that 92% of the surveyed school leavers believed that 'quite a lot' or 'rather many' of their acquaintances were also planning to move away from their small towns.

Judging by prior experience and feedback from experts in small towns, few young people will come back once they find employment in a big city. Thus, according to Florinskaya, better living standards and investment in local infrastructure in the 2000s have not helped retain young people in small communities.

Florinskaya's paper is based on findings from a research project carried out by the RANEPA Institute of Social Analysis and Forecasting in four Russian small towns – Vyazniki in Vladimir Region, Rtishchevo in Saratov Region, Kamen-na-Obi in Altai Krai, and Satka in Chelyabinsk Region. The researchers surveyed 420 eleventh-grade female (two-thirds) and male (one-third) school students, mainly A and B levels (12% were C-level students).

Most students came from families without financial problems: 30% said their families could afford anything except for buying an apartment, and 34% said their families could afford anything they want. In addition to surveying students, the researchers held expert interviews with the heads of local administrations' youth policy departments and school and college principals.

They compared the findings concerning students' migration intentions with data from a similar project implemented by the Migration Research Centre in 2014.

Young People Migrate for Education

The vast majority of students (91%) were planning to go to college; most students' families, regardless of socio-economic status (parents' education or income level), considered it their chance for better life. Expert interviews confirmed that seeking higher education was behind most migration intentions. An expert respondent in Satka quoted a school leaver's statement, "What we want is lacking here... I would like to be trained in a good profession, so that afterwards I do not need to jump from one job to another. "

Indeed, even C-graders are planning to move to big cities and go to college. Today, 71% of C-level students opt for higher education, compared to 40% in the past decade. However, according to the principal of a local university branch in Kamen-na-Obi, "Very often, people trying to get enrolled do not really care what type of education they are getting; they just want a degree."

Town Forming Enterprises Not Attractive

It would seem that town-forming enterprises can help retain young people in small towns, but data from the past ten years do not confirm this. "In the town of Rtishchevo where the railway is the main employer, just two people opted for railway-related occupations," according to Florinskaya, "while in Satka, where most parents were employed at Magnezit, a major manufacturer of refractory materials, just five students planned to be trained in engineering occupations with the potential for future employment at this enterprise."

Generally, young people’s career preferences have changed: one-third of all graduates were planning to be trained as economists in 2004, compared to just 6% in 2015.

Similarly, students' interest in computer technology dropped from 8% to 2% over the ten years, while interest in military occupations increased from 3% to 7%, and the popularity of medicine and teaching grew from 6% and 4%, respectively, to 8% in both cases. Students' interest in engineering occupations increased from 11% to 13%, coming second after law, which was chosen by 16% of respondents in 2015 compared to 9% in 2004 – according to Florinskaya, this finding suggests students' interest in being employed in the law enforcement field. 

Higher Salary Expectations

Getting an education is clearly an intermediate goal, while the ultimate purpose of migration is to attain a higher standard of living.

According to Florinskaya, salary expectations have increased drastically over ten years: more than half of all respondents today consider a normal salary to be in the range of 50,000 rubles per month, while about the same proportion of school leavers considered a salary of 10,000 rubles to be normal back in 2004.

Since monthly wages in the surveyed towns average at 17,000 to 19,000 rubles, they can hardly meet the new school leavers' salary expectations. According to an expert interview in Satka, "They want it all, and they want it now... The [youth policy] department surveyed school students on several occasions .... The Magnezit enterprise conducted a survey at schools, and [the students said] they wanted a starting salary of 45,000 rubles." The head of youth policy department in Kamen-na-Obi reported similar salary expectations, "Everyone responded that they wanted salaries ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 rubles."

Unlikely to Come Back

According to Florinskaya, 75% of respondents expected to leave their hometown, with nearly half saying they would leave for good, and another 26% expecting to be away for a longer period than their studies would take. The interviewed experts confirmed that most young people were not coming back. Thus, some three-quarters of all school leavers planning to migrate are likely to be "lost to their hometowns forever," Florenskaya concludes.

Compared to 2004, when 44% of respondents expected to leave 'forever' and 'for a longer period [than their studies]', the proportion of those unlikely to return has almost doubled in ten years. This means, according to Florinskaya, that neither the improvement of peoples living standards in the 2000s, nor investment in small towns' infrastructure have helped retain young people there.

School leavers tend to choose cities where their parents have previously migrated for employment – mainly the centres of their respective regions, as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg.

According to Florinskaya, young people likely to stay in their home towns include those who leave general school for vocational training after grade nine, a certain percentage of college graduates who come back to find employment in the public sector or industrial enterprises, and a few who return to start a small business in their home town.
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 13, 2016