Young people's strategies for social and economic integration in rural areas

Importance of local associations

When asking for local community activities everyone is immediately addressing the existing local associations and various groups at local level in rural areas (such as the local music association, voluntary fire brigade, rural youth movement, catholic youth movement, different sports clubs, etc.). Associations are of great importance integrating young people in local community structures and traditions (Böhnisch and Funk 1989), thus local opinion leaders have an interest to reach young people in order to tie them to their traditional structures and to secure continuity in community life.

Accordingly local community activities are heavily based on traditional tasks, and activities are similar from one association to the other. Associations are marked through a strong hierarchical structure, where adults - and mainly male adults - decide what's going on. Young people - if they take part in these associations - take these structures as a given fact and join them as they have learnt to do from former generations, being greatly induced to do so by their socialisation process. Thus, it is no surprise that the activities in the local institutions are not seen explicitly as "participation" but as part of everyday life in their rural area.

In particular the "rural youth" movement has an important task as youth organisation in perpetuating local ways of living. So it is not surprising that almost all kinds of cultural manifestations seem to be still rooted in local, traditional sources and reflect traditional culture ("Brauchtum"). Numerous young people of the conservative "rural youth" movement and also others apparently cling to those cultural expressions and are barely attracted by modern, world-wide trends.

"Traditional activities like folkdance and "Schuhplattln". It's simply fun. And that's it. As long as I've fun and moreover I can do it together with my friends. That's what we can do by ourselves for example in the rural youth group." (Franz, 22 years, male)

The rather personal access to the institutions, their development of objectives and rules over time, means an increase of difficulties for those with a traditional distance to these groups. Young people, who have not been "introduced" to the existing organisations by their parents, might regard themselves (and indeed be regarded) to some extent as outsiders and have to overcome psychological barriers to enter the groups and feel accepted. There is a marked correlation between community involvement and social class, gender roles, employment status, territorial aspects etc. This means that a small group of young people is firmly integrated in local networks and striving for a kind of "leadership" role while others feel that they are not accepted by "adults" and their activities would not matter at all. According to the interview sample these are primarily unemployed young persons, those in training schemes and other groups (like lone mothers) being in exceptional situations in comparison to the norm of young people.

Young people's influence in local decision-making

Extending a little bit on the involvement in youth organisation, there appears a lack of specific meeting points and differentiating institutions. Young people don't feel in the least encouraged to take the initiative to organize themselves, it is more likely that there is quite a considerable reluctance towards youth groups not fitting into the local forms of organisations. Again mostly young people who already left the study area talk about "monumental" problems if somebody wants to organise a youth event.

Municipalities are primarily led by men of older age groups, which causes much criticism by young people. In many cases it is referred to that the present local actors are stubborn, older persons with no understanding and interest for the problems of young people.

"Because basically it's the municipality who decides about everything what's going on. And in the municipality there are some pigheaded men, especially some old ones. I think, that's the problem. They are old established. In fact, they're not very much interested in the problems of young people. >>They should behave, the youngsters. It's okay for us.<< That's how it is." (Konstantin, 18 years, male)

Young people also experience very little tolerance towards new ideas and experiments. The fears of sanctions suppress almost every community based activity because nobody wants to take responsibility and be blamed for it, if something goes wrong. The deficiencies of the youth organisations are so evident that many young people have internalised the problem, putting forward primarily excuses why this situation could not be improved. "Young people are so little interested in everything" is the common expression regarding youth participation.

At any rate, there is a wide-spread opinion that efforts for more intensive participation are more or less senseless since most young people will either have to leave or to commute because of educational or vocational reasons.

Influence in decision making processes, if it takes place at all, is mainly to be realised through traditional youth groups such as rural youth groups (with some exceptional starting initiatives, like co-ordination of further education, drug prevention, etc.). But even young people strongly involved in rural youth movement admit that there is little influence of young people in local decision making processes. Only few act like one very active young man - involved in a series of community activities - who plans to candidate as youth representative in the municipality council aiming to push forward youth relevant issues. But it is more likely that the low acceptance rate of proposals and views brought forward by young people deepens the attitude of being in a "waiting position". It is expected that action by government institutions at different levels, by the big relevant regional organisations and by local prime-actors is bringing about improvements to their situation. This view is best visualised by the concentration at the local level on the dependance from the mayor, representing the hope for changes in the community. Influence is measured by personal impact on this key person.

"Well, to join in. I've a good line to the mayor; that works. When I introduce an idea, he's listening." (Christian, 21 years, male)

5. Strategies of young people

This section considers the question how young people try to cope with the narrow range of regional opportunities in the fields of education, labour market and social participation. Analysis suggest that there are basically three strategies young people use implicitly and/or explicitly to handle the situation of limited options in a peripheral rural area. In short they could be formulated as follows: adaptation, mobilisation and out-migration. However, the variety of nuances in between these options is large and must not be underestimated.

For young people interviewed in the study area the weak position and the assessment of labour market(s) are central and of primary importance for their perspectives and personal decision of staying or leaving the region. But this straight forward economic orientation only appears in the foreground as the only deciding line of consideration for this dimension. Options for young people are often explicitly tied to their near personal future, e.g. with regard to live with a partner or with influence of their social network. Moreover the high attachment to the area and the attractiveness of nature and life quality in the area underlines that there is a whole set of other factors equally relevant for young people's decisions.

According to the interviewees the impact of major factors on individual future plans are gender related. While young men put forward mainly economic reasons for staying or leaving such as taking over parents' farms, building houses, and job opportunities, young women mainly stress social aspects concerning family and boy friend. E.g. females decision upon school education is influenced to a significantly larger extent by the wish to stay in the area and by the expectations of family or friends compared to males.

The following section tries to take a closer look at what it actually means for young people to adapt themselves to local/regional opportunities, to mobilise or to out-migrate.


Young people living in a peripheral area are mostly conscious of limited opportunities especially in education and labour market. But those of the young people who want to stay in the region tend to expose "rural life" as their deliberate choice of life strategy, like a dream of life. In respect of the limitations (see above), they develop some sort of pragmatism. On the one hand they focus on the positive sides of rural life (clean environment, close community, peace and silence, etc.). On the other hand adaptations to rural aspects and exigencies are seen as regional norm: Consequently, young people don't express wishes which are not accessible anyway, and they try to argue in such a way to find support for their decisions oriented at regional opportunities.

By adapting their strategies towards the regional labour market young people try to escape the threat of unemployment. The tendency is that they orient their education and skills towards the jobs available in the region. Higher education, like university studies, are not recognised as desirable by young people, at least the statements are rather negative, even if their would be overt interest for it. On the other hand, all young people opting for a university study or some sort of higher education are aware that this is a deliberate choice and chances to come back to the region to get a job are minimal.

"Question: Do you know of jobs here in the area?

Interviewee: You have to work towards it. (…) If you do a university study … I mean, you probably will not find a job here with us. Then you have to go somewhere else, that's clear. You have to adapt somehow to the area. Either (become) electrician, plumber, bricklayer or working in construction branches. Well, because there you get the job." (Heidrun, 23 years, female)

A large number of interviewees stress that the decision which path they want to take after compulsory school was all done by their own. It seems to be an important issue for them to point out, that the job decision mainly has been based on their interest in the special profession. But later on during the interviews the relevance of parents and other persons in this decision making process becomes obvious. Within the family both discussion and the example of parents and other relatives stir up and strengthen the interest for a certain education path or apprenticeship. It doesn't mean that this leads necessarily to adaptation but the probability increases. In particular, the example of the parents has a decisive effect on those males inheriting their parents farm. One male heir therefore is arguing about his decision for apprenticeship in the following way:

"Well I mean, I've been helped, let's say … my father, well, my parents a little bit, and the decision, yes, I've decided on my own practically.

Question: Why did you choose exactly this apprenticeship?

Well, firstly, because I'm, it has been made up for a long time, that I'll inherit the farm and I've always been interested, I've always been an enthusiastic farmer, so it has been the closest to learn mechanic of agricultural machinery." (Georg, 22 years, male)

Another male who chose the same profession as his father:

"Yeah, because it was the most familiar, it was the most interesting thing. I was interested very much. You see, my father, he has always taken me with him, and it has been most interesting. I didn't have to do it, it was my own interest. That's why I've learnt it." (Peter, 24 years, male)

It has to be mentioned that an orientation towards traditional gender related structures and corresponding education and labour market conditions leaves especially young women in a struggle of competing desires. While young women are still caught in (traditional) societal structures, they increasingly reflect changing life-aspirations: Many of them have the ambition of getting a vocational training which fits and pleases them. So, profession and gaining personal satisfying skills is an aim in itself. They envisage their future firstly in their profession, and esteem the wish to set up a family secondary and as a rather distant future plan.

This makes them susceptible to the constraints of labour market. While desires and aspirations of girls concentrate on job, job and vocational opportunities have not changed much. For girls there are still only a small range of choices in the region available. As Wyn and White (1997) conclude: "the system of vocational training has not served in the best interest of women, locating women in the traditional trades of hairdressing, retail and clerical work, and in the lower status and less paid traineeships" (ebd. p.103), this seems to be the case also in Murau.

"For women it is much more difficult, because everything is overcrowded. Like hairdresser, saleswomen and like this. These jobs are all taken. And I really think, girls do have more problems finding an apprenticeship." (Rosa, 22 years, female)

Young women are left on their own with this insufficient situation and furthermore have to cope with the common attitude that when a child is born it is no question that the mother has all the responsibility. But these expectations are in contrast to the actual situation where low wage on the one hand and young mothers being lone partners on the other hand often are forced to look for employment with the need to support a family.

Traditional attitudes about appropriate motherhood and the lack of affordable childcare provisions, which probably reflects the prevailing attitudes, often 'lead women to withdraw from the labour market or to regard their employment as secondary to their family responsibilities' (Shucksmith et al. 2000). Feeling that there is no escape (if they don't leave the realm of this society) the women in our sample don't complain about this with all the detrimental consequences for their job perspectives. ("My family is very important to me and my job will absolutely have to fit to my family life." Anna, 24 years, female, one child)


As adaptation seems to be a limited strategy to cope with the restriction of a rural area, indeed most of the young people who want to stay in the region try to enhance their opportunities through different forms of mobilisation. The follwing section refers to the importance of mobility in a territorial sense as well as in a more social and professional respect.

The increasing interrelation of different spheres of economic and social life between local, regional, and national and global attributes has an enormous impact within local communities in peripheral rural areas, too. The orientation of rural inhabitants alter from the particular local emphasis on their villages to a more regional perspective and especially young people have extended their action room to the whole region. To begin with, most young people have to commute if they want to attend a high school or further education institution, also leisure time opportunities (for example skiing resorts, sport activities or diverse pubs) are spread over the region and beyond. Not to mention the need to be mobile to reach an apprenticeship place or a certain job. As described above the commuting rate of young people increases and has reached the average of 39% of young people between 15 and 24 years (42% of young males).

As public transport is weakly developed and expensive, it has never been a serious alternative to individual transportation not even to people who need not stick to a strict timetable. Thus, people in rural areas take having private cars for granted and most of the interviewees were striving for a private car if they had not bought one already or were not able to use one regularily. "Without having a car you are lost. If you've to rely on public transport you are lost" was the more or less unisonous statement of the interviewees in respect of territorial mobility.

The strategy of mobilisation can also refer to the attitude of personal flexibility to cope with unfortunate conditions. This attitude is widespread among young people, too. In respect of gaining a vocational training place or a job it stands for the willingness to accept chances wherever they appear, even if they don't fit exactly to the own intentions. This includes the willingness to commute, to accept a low paid job or a low skilled job, to retrain and ultimately to leave the region. Flexibility can therefore also be seen in its territorial and thematic dimensions. For example young people might shift from local labour market to the regional and national labour market (see also Shucksmith 2000) or might accept to change to take up jobs with different qualification criteria. At the extreme, young people are willing "to take everything" (Susanne, 16 years, female), at least for some period.

Flexibility seems to be of certain importance, also among young farmers (or future heirs of farms). On the one hand young people being committed to take over their parents' farm stress their satisfaction to be in that position and increasingly turn their attention to previously neglected activities like forest work, direct marketing of farm produce and partly organic farming. However, reluctance to this "new" fields of activity is widespread and the positive image presented seems to be restricted to those farmers being involved in the new strategies and taking advantage of recent farming support and rural development schemes.

On the other hand young farm heirs rely far less on the profession of their parents. To be on the safe side a second education besides agriculture is estimated very useful for nearly all farm heirs, too, in case farming proves to be less and less profitable. Moreover most appreciate the choice to take up an off-farm (seasonal) job to improve their personal income substantially and to decrease their dependence on their parents' payments which has to be taken from farm income. This implies that nearly all young people try to secure off-farm income as this is regarded as their personal income. In comparison with other young people they realise that this is the only way to raise their living standard and to take part in consumer society, e.g. through car ownership etc. Even for young people from bigger farms it is therefore rather appealing to take up at least occasionally off-farm work to dispose of own money and to keep pace with comparable young people of their region, friends etc.