It is embarrassingly apropos, but a recent analysis of challenges in rural Canada, extrapolated from an economic study of PEI and Atlantic Canada, is a perfect example of how our worldview can limit our potential.
The author of the article ties a chronically under-performing economy with population decline, “There is a relationship between economic growth and population growth. In fact, population growth is, in my opinion, essential for economic growth.” He fails is to see the opportunities being presented by the 4th industrial revolution and the changing nature of work as potential economic drivers in rural communities.
His main points:
- Rural communities have a higher reliance on natural resource development for jobs and a greater dependence on seasonal work than their urban counterparts.
- Higher unemployment rates mean fewer workers helping to build economic prosperity and fewer tax dollars to fund public services
“For years, I have wondered why the region leads the country, year in year out, in terms of unemployment rates. Were we less educated, less entrepreneurial, less motivated than those living in other parts of the country?” — Don Mills
The analysis follows what we know about population decline and the resulting effects in rural communities worldwide; however, the lagging worldview that perpetuates this decline is what must be challenged and changed. The author reports, “… there are limited opportunities to create full-time, year-round jobs in these rural communities.”
He further states, “The key to greater economic prosperity is the creation of more full-time jobs, in nearby urban communities within a reasonable commute, for those living in these rural communities. By focusing economic development efforts on these urban areas, there is an opportunity to serve those living in nearby rural communities with full-time employment.”
The solution for rural communities is to focus on economic development in urban areas?
You had me with your facts Mr. Mills, but you lost me with your solution.
We don’t have to look any further for an alternative solution than our own rural communities. If a community has high speed Internet, it also has home-based workers (either remote employees or freelancers) earning income year-round. They’re already here folks! In fact, 19% of all freelancers today live in rural communities. Depending on what study you reference projections are that within a decade between 40–60% of the entire workforce will be made up of freelancers.
What does that mean for rural communities with Internet? It means that an entire new year-round workforce could be injecting new money into the local economy without the requirement of a local employer! The challenge becomes identifying and supporting the existing independent professionals, while attracting more of them with quality of life messaging, high speed Internet access, and support services like coworking and networking opportunities. Connecting with the nearest urban centre becomes more about personal and professional access for rural freelancers than it does job creation for people willing to commute.
Growing #FreelanceFriendly and #RemoteWorkFriendly rural communities as a strategy for economic development is a smart move with various levels of government scrambling to find ways in which to capitalize on this opportunity. According to a recent Forbes article places in the US like Tulsa and the state of Vermont are attracting this workforce with remote worker grant programs, and the state of Utah is providing rural residents with remote work skills.
While Mills may have the right data, I question who is being served by his solution. He says that population growth is essential for economic growth and yet creating employment opportunities in nearby cities for those within a reasonable commuting distance doesn’t scream “move to rural.” At best it’s an unimaginative employment strategy and at worst it’s a boil the frog scheme that is meant to serve a larger national region by increasing urban populations and closing rural communities.
Global workforce changes mean opportunity as much as disruption. Rural communities have to take charge, examine their own worldview for relevance and take a good close look at the people currently making a year-round living from their dining room tables. Future-focused strategy that includes growing a community of independent professionals who are injecting new money into the local economy will organically lead to population growth, moving the needle toward rural sustainability.