Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Bled Strategic Forum
16 min readJan 9, 2023

Involving youth in decision-making processes to stop the outmigration from mid-sized towns in the Danube region

Authors: Urška Volk Kovačič and Ana Novak (Centre for European Perspective), Vedrana Knežević (European Foundation for Education)

Keywords: Youth, outmigration, mid-size towns, Danube region

Abstract:

This paper aims to provide a background on youth outmigration from mid-sized towns and regions in the Danube region, as well as an overview of some good practice cases of youth involvement in local decision-making processes that have aided in youth retention.

As one of the largest demographic groups, young people pose a challenge to local policymakers due to their population dynamics, contemporary lifestyles, and complex everyday needs. Youth migration and mobility are prevalent themes among youth, with youth searching for better opportunities outside of their hometowns, often leading to negative effects on local economies. Youth engagement in youth policy planning and addressing youth challenges in mid-sized towns can significantly impact youth retention, emigration, or returns.

Youth challenges are quite under-researched in the context of mid-sized towns, and research shows rather negative demographic and economic trends in regions with no industry (as an economic base) despite the positive changes occurring, especially in the European context. Deindustrialisation puts such towns and regions in a disadvantaged position for youth retention if no attractive economic base is established. Social security means less stability and is a less suitable fit for young people that will thus search for a town with more economic stability and opportunities. The biggest obstacle in many cases seems to be the maladaptation of economic and social systems for young people’s needs. Many times, local governance instils programmes and policies that are not the best fit for the needs of the youth population as a direct result of the non-involvement of youth in policy planning.

Introduction

The Danube region is home to around 115 million people, covering 14 countries (Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czechia, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Romania, and Ukraine). Youth (between 0–19 years old) represents around a third of the population in the region, with the region reflecting the trend of the slowing down of population growth and the growing percentage of the population over 65 years of age.

As is the trend in other European countries, the region is dealing with rising cases of youth outmigration, with the southeastern countries of the Danube region often being the sending countries (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia) and the northern countries (Austria and Germany) being the main receiving countries.

(Out)migration is, for the purpose of this article, defined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as the movement of persons away from their place of usual residence and across an international border to a country of which they are not nationals (IOM 2022). Overall, migration flows are not a new occurrence in the Danube Region, with migration beginning in the 20th century (around both world wars), in the 1960s mostly due to economic reasons, and later on following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav war, which also led to large migratory flows from the region (Löffler, & Petanovitsch, 2019).

The terms “outmigration” and “emigration” are sometimes used as synonyms, but the term emigration is more widely used for international migration (meaning a permanent crossing of a national state border), while outmigration also includes internal migration (so permanent migration within a country) (Barcus and Halfacree 2018, 93). Due to the freedom of movement, migration between EU countries is starting to be considered more as “internal” migration and is oftentimes described as “mobility”. In the article, we will be using the term “outmigration”, which encompasses EU’s internal’ migration as well as global migration and also rural-to-urban migration.

Rural-to-urban migration is another aspect of youth migration — and is prevalent in the Danube region. This type of migration is driven mostly by economic factors as young people recognise better opportunities in the urban environment, ranging from better wages to the availability and diversity of job opportunities, training and educational opportunities, and the availability and affordability of housing or food (Halfacree, 2020).

As one of the largest demographic groups, young people pose a challenge to local policymakers due to their population dynamics, contemporary lifestyles, and complex everyday needs. Youth migration and mobility are prevalent themes among youth, with young people searching for better opportunities outside their hometowns if they do not find them at home, which often negatively affects local economies. The motives for the migration of youth can be distinguished into three types: labour-motivated migration, education-induced migration, or migration focused on family formation (Gruber & Schorn, 2019: 4). As one of the most important reasons why youth move, economic factors can be influenced by local authorities, so it is crucial to involve both youth and local authorities in youth policymaking. We must also recognise that some young people will move (permanently or not) after completing their education simply out of a desire for growth and new experiences, be it professional, social, or cultural.

On the reasons for youth outmigration and issues affecting small and medium-sized European towns

Youth challenges are relatively under-researched in the context of mid-sized towns, and research shows rather negative demographic and economic trends in regions with no industry (as an economic base). No industry in the region or the process of deindustrialisation puts such towns and regions in a disadvantaged position for youth retention, as there is no stable economic base unless such regions actively work towards establishing it. In the last ten years, there has also been a growing problem of unemployment in industrial (especially manufacturing) small and medium-sized towns (SMSTs) in Europe due to global competition (especially with low labour costs in the global South). In general, urban centers experience immigration, while the aforementioned rural and former industrial areas experience outmigration (Gruber & Schorn, 2019: 3). Faced with a diminishing young population, such communities tend not to attract investments (as there is no labour force) and are thus trapped in an endless cycle.

If we look at the Slovenian municipality of Velenje, the trend of outmigration from areas experiencing deindustrialisation is visible. Velenje is an industrial town with a population of about 30 000 people and an area with a strong industry (coal mining and household appliance production) that employs about 50% of the population. Starting in the 1950s, the municipality experienced economic growth and a rise in immigration as it offered the possibility of employment in the Velenje coal mine. One of the positive consequences of immigration was a high percentage of the young population.

But following Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, rising environmental issues, and global competition (especially due to lower labour costs elsewhere), Velenje experienced a decline in the mining industry and a slowing of immigration, with the trend slowly arching toward population decline and the emigration of young people. Demographic projections show that the municipality will lose around 15 percent of its population by 2040 (Gašperšič et. al., 2020). The closure of the coal mine in about 30 years, as well as the recent sale of the Gorenje factory to Chinese investors (who intend to reduce its workforce), point to a fragile (post-)industrial future in Velenje — and a fragile environment for Velenje’s youth. Like many other industrial and post-industrial towns, Velenje needs long-term restructuring, modernisation, and diversification to become an attractive town for its young population. With various activities, the municipality of Velenje strives to keep the city attractive to young, educated people. Thus, in the last two years, the municipality reduced the municipal contribution for new construction by 50% for young people, allocated five apartments from the quota of rental apartments for young educated individuals, and recently introduced co-financing of rental loans for young people who are solving the housing problem for the first time. The municipality is also engaged in various activities aimed at youth attraction and retention; one of them is participation in the Danube Transnational Programme project TalentMagnet.

One of the studies of the situation in the Danube region, focusing on the reasons for the outmigration of youth, is the Baseline study done in the scope of the TalentMagnet project, analysing the conditions in 14 cities in the Danube region. The data (despite it coming from the pre-Covid era) shows that the availability of quality jobs and a prospering economy are critical factors for talent attraction and retention, followed by a quality education system offering possibilities for distance learning or homeschooling and offering diverse programs. Another set of factors falls under the quality of life category — the quality of life indicators range from life expectancy, the health care system, environmental situation, public spaces and green zones, housing, childcare, public transport, cultural and tourist offers, and safety, which young people take into account after the ‘primary factors’ (those being quality jobs and the economy) have been met.

Meeting all the criteria needed for establishing an attractive environment for youth, thus retaining and attracting them, cannot be done without youth involvement in local policy planning. As a direct result of not including youth in policy planning, local governments often implement programs and policies that are not the best fit for the needs of youth. Gaining perspectives from youth, learning from them, and engaging youth in youth policy planning can significantly impact youth retention, emigration, or returns.

Involving youth can take various forms and include designated or appointed board or commission member roles and other youth civic engagement programs facilitated by local governments and/or community-based organisations working in partnership with local jurisdictions. Local municipalities can provide a platform for youth to participate by voicing their concerns in regard to youth issues, youth councils that actively work in the field of youth and partake in youth initiatives can be established, etc. Opportunities for cooperation with the local authorities help youth develop the knowledge and skills they need to make a difference in the community, while youth engagement in government also benefits the local community by ensuring that youth perspectives and voices are heard and considered as part of the local decision-making process.

By giving youth a voice and addressing their needs, and seeing changes made and their proposals considered and implemented, youth will feel a sense of accomplishment in contributing to change while developing a deeper sense of belonging to their community.

The involvement of present and future generations in the shaping of our societies is high on the political agenda on a local, regional, national, and European level and is one of the main objectives of the EU Youth Strategy.

Photo of the cover of the EU Youth Strategy, which can be found here: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/2aa70c85-97bb-11e9-9369-01aa75ed71a1/language-en/format-PDF/source-106880783

The benefit of transnational projects for youth retention

Migration, and especially the migration of young people, has intensified in the Danube Region in the last decade, as has intra-EU mobility in general and particularly East–West migration within the Union. The increased migration and mobility have resulted primarily from historical and political transformations, such as the collapse of socialist regimes between 1989 and 1990 and EU enlargements.

The internal market and freedom of movement represent main prerequisites for intensified migration within the enlarged EU territory. Structural changes in EU policy and EU enlargements further transformed conditions for individuals from non-member states migrating to the EU and, respectively, to states that became EU members. From a macro perspective, the disparities between Eastern and Western countries in the region concerning their wealth and economic possibilities offer a motivation for labour migration.

Causes and types of intra-European migration and migration to Europe are often the results of complex decision-making and can be explained by economic, social, familial, and cultural factors, with usually more than one reason being of importance.

Generally, migration is a highly selective phenomenon, especially in the context of age, as important life-course events that may trigger mobility usually take place at younger ages.

Youth outmigration from mid-sized towns and regions in the Danube region has been a persistent issue for many years, with young people often leaving in search of better job opportunities, higher education, and a more vibrant social scene. This trend has had a negative impact on the local economy and community, as young people tend to be a driving force for innovation and development.

To address this issue, some cities and towns in the Danube region have implemented good practices of youth involvement in local decision-making processes to try and lessen the outmigration.

One such case is in the city of Timisoara, Romania, where the local government established a youth council to give young people a voice in the decision-making process. The council is composed of young people aged 16–30 and is responsible for representing the interests and needs of the youth population. The council has been successful in advocating for issues such as improved public transportation, more youth-centric programming, and increased funding for youth initiatives.

Another example is a program called “Pécs 2030” in the town of Pécs, Hungary, which the local government created to engage youth in the planning and development of the town’s future. Through the program, young people can participate in workshops, focus groups, and other activities to share their ideas and provide input on the direction of the town. As a result, Pécs has been able to retain more young people and attract new talent, which has had a positive impact on the local economy and community.

Overall, youth involvement in local decision-making processes has proven to be an effective way to retain young people in mid-sized towns and regions in the Danube region. By giving young people a voice and a platform to share their ideas and concerns, cities and towns can create a more welcoming and inclusive environment that meets the needs of their youthful populations.

Research also shows positive results from international projects focusing on addressing this topic. Participants in international projects report a clear positive impact of their participation on their competencies, their behaviour, and their values. But what’s more, these international projects have a significantly higher effect on young people with fewer opportunities. Compared to “well-off” young people with the most opportunities, those with fewer opportunities systematically rate the effects of an international youth project more positively.

Thanks to EU funding, young people and youth workers from different countries can meet and enjoy a non-formal learning program together (learning by doing, learning by fun). Such an international experience enriches young people and strengthens their European values. The participants gain competencies, open their minds and hearts, and become active European citizens.

Another positive impact of international projects is felt at the local level, especially in small and mid-sized towns and municipalities. The outmigration of highly educated young people creates major demographic and labour market challenges for such towns in the Danube Region as it causes a shortage of highly educated workers in both the private and public sectors, stifles entrepreneurship and innovation, and has serious consequences.

One of the international projects addressing these topics on the level of small and medium-sized towns is the Danube Transnational Programme project TalentMagnet.

The TalentMagnet project aims to address these challenges by establishing a new multilevel and transnational governance model. Research has shown that youth migration and brain drain are intensifying in the Danube region, and this development has an impact on local, national, and regional levels. Although the policies of the countries are interdependent, they could, however, greatly benefit from further improved collaboration. By improving institutional capacities to reduce the outmigration of talented young workforce and creating practical tools tailored to the specific needs of small- and medium-sized towns, TalentMagnet would contribute to talent attraction and retention in the Danube region. In contrast to the usual “brain drain” narrative (emphasising the loss of human capital), international labour migration is often more circular. It enables transnational social networks to arise and encourages the transfer of skills and know-how (‘brain circulation”), thus creating the opportunity to reduce the negative effects of brain drain. Therefore, migration and development policies should aim to converge brain drain with brain circulation and implement specific programmes for return opportunities.

Local and regional policies play an important role when it comes to the development of strategies to address the negative consequences of youth migration. Since local authorities play a crucial role in providing young people access to employment, housing, schools, health care, cultural life, and recreational facilities (and thus have a remarkable influence on people’s decisions to stay or leave), involving them in youth migration governance seems to be of key importance. Given the different levels of development of the Danube Region countries, tailor-made responses are needed, with local policies that may vary considerably from one country to another.

It is important to remember that pull factors play an important role when it comes to mobility among highly skilled workers and that migration is not solely dependent on economic factors. The attractiveness of the location, the search for adventure, making new experiences, learning a language, living in a better natural environment, escaping the norms of domestic society, and lifestyle factors are almost as important as economic factors such as high salaries and better employment opportunities.

Conclusion

The current figures show a trend of population decline and ageing, and the Danube region will need to work harder to improve youth retention, particularly in rural and mid-sized towns. Some mid-size towns have already noted the importance of youth retention and begun addressing it, but not all towns and areas are highlighting this issue and are yet to begin to address it as not only are the towns losing young population, the population moving out tends to consist of those highly educated and skilled young people, and the impact of such loss is double in rural areas as in majority they deal with the trend of population loss to urban areas.

Local policymakers must find ways to reduce the brain drain from SMTs and make a living in rural Danube regions more appealing because, in the absence of social security, young people will look for and move to towns and regions with greater economic stability and opportunities. Both economic and lifestyle factors influence the attraction of human capital to urban and rural areas. Although lifestyle factors (such as housing, health, green zones, recreational possibilities, etc.) play a significant role in talent attraction and retention, economic factors (such as job opportunities, high wages, and low transportation costs) cannot be replaced.

There are a variety of economic strategies being implemented by governments and agencies across Europe and the US to reverse the brain drain, including scholarships, tax incentives, and paid internships. The Interreg project TalentMagnet has been dealing with the challenges of small and medium-sized cities in the Danube Region that are faced with the outmigration of talented and skilled young people and has been, in the two years of the project run, tasked with answering the question of how to stop the outmigration of youth from small- and medium-sized towns.

The most challenging task for small- and medium-sized towns is to create innovative policies, new job opportunities, and a functional business environment in order to stop the outflow of youth and attract and retain talent.

The research among project partners also indicated that the overall improvement of the education system, modernisation of teaching techniques and styles, and the introduction of information technologies are necessary to create a stronger link between education and the labour market. In this respect, transnational cooperation could be of great importance for identifying the specific needs of young talent and the private sector in the Danube region, with a focus on innovation, diversity, and inclusion.

Young talents’ needs are mostly related to quality job opportunities, a prospering business environment, personal and career development opportunities, affordable and diverse housing options, etc. The private sector needs more highly skilled young talents, more remote and international employees, the development of innovative approaches to young talent acquisition, including employer branding strategies, as well as an increase in business effectiveness to meet the pay demands of young talents. The current pandemic situation has major implications for local and regional decision-makers and stakeholders in attracting and retaining young talents. Although some of the actual effects might be only short-term, remote work and the willingness to reduce living costs will probably have long-term implications, especially with regard to our understanding of work, mobility, and housing. These developments offer great and unique opportunities for small- and medium-sized cities.

The TalentMagnet holistic approach to talent attraction and retention is based on an integrated view of diverse factors relevant to talent attraction and retention: work, life, attraction, and place. The development of an innovative and sustainable ecosystem based on multi-level governance and the shaping of talent-competitive cities and regions will require local and municipal leaders, along with national decision-makers, to improve all areas relevant to creating cities and regions where people love to live and work.

Every city and municipality must assess its specific opportunities as well as the expectations of its young talent in order to design and implement a tailored talent attraction and retention plan. To ensure the sustainability of talent attraction and retention policies, it is crucial to have supportive framework conditions (legislation, funding, support organisations) in place on local, national, and — to some extent—transnational levels.

The article was prepared within the scope of the international Interreg project TalentMagnet, co-funded by European Union funds (ERDF, IPA, ENI).

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