Not all rural areas are equal. There are accessible and remote areas with the latter continuing to lose population over the past decade (See Chapter 3 Population and Settlement Change in the Republic of Ireland 1991 – 2006. Demographic Impacts and Implications for Rural Areas). It would however be overly simplistic to argue that remote areas are the ones that will experience significant population loss as this would be to ignore the demographic profile of rural Ireland.

Migration is generally a young person’s (those in their late teens and 20s) activity. This is likely to be particularly true today as those in the older cohorts (30s+) are more likely to have purchased houses. A recent conversation (December 2010) with a director of one of the large estate agencies with a national office network suggests that there are parts of the country where there is no housing market. In order to achieve a sale in rural areas one would have to be willing to accept a very large discount on the supposed ‘value’ of the house a few years ago. For those that recently built or bought in rural areas this could be very difficult. If houses were affected by recent flooding then a sale is likely to be difficult if not impossible to achieve. This being the case ‘place’ has become significantly more ‘sticky’ which gives rise to the prospect of rural poverty rearing its unwelcome head once more as those who loose their jobs are unable to find work or move.

In order to get a better feel for the impact on rural areas of population decline through out-migration I undertook a quick piece of analysis exploring the rural – urban distribution of the population between 15 and 25 years of age using Census of Population 2006 data. Looking initially at the percentage of the total population accounted for by 15 – 25 year olds one finds that 16% of the total population in urban areas is 15 – 25 whilst the figure for rural areas is 13%. In general this reflects the older age profile of the rural population. Analysis between rural and urban areas indicates that 37% of the total population of 15 – 25 year olds lives in rural areas. In a generic sense, these data suggest that the overall exposure of rural areas to the risk of depopulation is lower than their urban counterparts given that they account for a smaller proportion of the total rural population.

This conclusion, however, ignores the spatial distribution of employment opportunities and the industrial division of labour between urban and rural areas. Analysis of the CSO Place of Work dataset (POWCAR) looking at the industrial profile of those in employment in 2006 between 15 and 24 finds:

a. The labour force in rural areas depends to a significantly greater extent on jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and construction. Of those in employment, 44% were employed in these sectors by comparison to 25% in urban areas.

b. Of those persons 15-24 employed in the construction sector 52% live in rural areas.

c. Males aged 15-24 living in rural areas are highly dependent on the agriculture, manufacturing and construction sectors as these account for 63% of all (male) employment opportunities. The corresponding figure for males in urban areas is 40%.

d. Females 15-24 living in rural areas are more dependent on public sector employment which accounts for 21% of all (female) employment opportunities. The corresponding figure for females in urban areas is 16%.

These data show that, though the population of 15-24 year olds comprises a smaller proportion of the rural population, many of these individuals face a high risk of unemployment. This is particularly true of males who are highly dependent on employment in sectors that are currently under considerable pressure, particularly construction.

This analysis demonstrates the risk of unemployment amongst the rural population 15 – 24 years of age. It suggests that, relative to their urban counterparts, those living in rural areas, are more likely to be faced with the prospect of having to seek alternative employment opportunities as key sectors shed jobs. Given the limited opportunities for employment in other (services) sectors available in rural areas, it is likely that this population will have to seek employment in urban centres, whether they be in Ireland or abroad. This scenario is likely to have significant implications for rural males given the current declines in agriculture, manufacturing and construction employment. Rural females are not insulated from these developments given that 12% work in agriculture, manufacturing and construction, a further 35% work in commerce / retail (which has suffered in the current downturn) and 21% are employed in the public sector. This latter group may well be exposed to reduced incomes, reduced hours and reduced availability of part-time employment in the coming months given the cuts to public sector employment and spending.

Overall, unless a number of initiatives are taken in the near future to diversify the rural economy and, associated with this, up-skill the rural workforce, I think it will be inevitable that rural areas will witness outmigration of younger people.

David Meredith