How ya gonna keep’em down on the farm?

23/03/2012 § 5 Comments

I got out of the office yesterday. Away from Wellington, in the company of non-economists. Yes, it does happen.

The subject of rural de-population came up. The rural regions of New Zealand are concerned because they aren’t attracting more people, and some areas are actually shrinking. The peri-urban areas that are growing are seeing increasing numbers of retirees and lifestyle blocks (hobby farms). People in those areas aren’t sure that’s what they want — communities that once had families and employment now servicing the old and absent. The demographic change also changes the services required in the town centres. Less need for farm equipment, but more demand for doctors and pharmacists.

I don’t have any solutions, just a few observations:

  1. It’s the tension between the individual and the collective. Each person is individually seeking what’s best for them, but people — some people, at least — aren’t happy with the aggregate outcome. Younger people are going out into the world to seek their fortunes. Other people are moving into rural areas for peace or isolation. The result is that these two groups are more segregated than either necessarily prefers. It’s a bit like Schelling’s model of housing segregation, ¬†only with an active regional council. But it’s hard to see how this is a bad result, except to the extent that people weakly value the communities in which they live.
  2. It’s been going on for years. People have been moving off farms and into towns and then into cities for as long as they have had the option. There are technology pushes — we don’t need gangs of milkers, anymore, for example. There are pulls, too — cities allow specialisation, so people can produce more and earn more. But given the long-term trends, is worrying about de-population just trying to hold back the tide?
  3. Technology isn’t going to be the saviour of rural New Zealand. We’ve been hearing for years that new communications technologies (will) allow us all to work from home, the cafe, and the beach. We do that to some extent. A few people do build business empires on the back of broadband. But we also spend lots of time in our offices, seeing and talking with our co-workers. One of the interesting economic geography arguments I’ve seen is that technology is making face-time more valuable. As a result, work that requires us to spend time with each other is becoming more highly paid, and work that can be made routine and parceled out in bits and bytes is becoming less valuable. New Zealand is on the wrong side of that trend, and rural areas even more so.

No pithy observation, no happy thought to end this post. Just the vague feeling that we’re watching the future unfold and there’s not much we can do to change it.

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