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Rural young people are like all youth everywhere. Still, there are differences among those who live in inner cities, suburbs, and rural situations. And of course rural youth are distinguished by individual differences and distinctions among those who live on a farm, over or behind a gas station, in a small town, or up in the mountains. No matter where you live, it is a different thing to grow up poor or to grow up rich. Some rural teenagers are into 4H clubs, Future Farmers, or the Grange. Others are into heavy metal, skate boards, or rap.

We want the writers on this topic to be rural in orientation. For now we offer this introduction to rural youth all over the world. In many places, rural has to do with a simpler, non-urbanized, traditional life. When young people move from such villages to a city. It is often a drastic and difficult transition. Urbanologists talk of the push and pull of the city. Poverty, limited possibilities, lack of useful land often push people from small town; employment, educational opportunities, medical facilities, and the bright lights pull them to the city. But the promise of urban opportunity does not always become a reality. Those who do not find work often end up in slums or urban shanty towns. In many developing nations, leaders realize the overcrowding of their cities must be slowed down by rural development.

Despite rapid urbanization in the developing world, about half of a continent like sub-Sahara Africa’s population is rural. The percentage is much lower in highly developed and urbanized societies. In 1880, 43.8 % of the US population were farmers. That percentage had dropped to 1.9% by 1991 (US Agriculture Census).

Rural youth in Africa, India, China and elsewhere long for education and jobs. Often they lack school fees and can’t find employment. Although the lure of the city is universal, there is a sense that if education and employment were present, many rural youth would be content to stay.

In the US, some teenagers are happy with their life on the farm. Lewis Lamb is 15.

My family has worked this farm since before I was born. When I was about nine I started having chores...In the summer I spend a lot of my time keeping the grass mowed down and rotating the cows from pasture to pasture.

I’ve always wanted to go to college and learn about animal medicine and agriculture...My brother and I will probably raise our kids right her eon the this farm one day. I don’t even daydream of leaving here, except to go to college and then I’d bring everything I learned right back home...My girlfriend comes from a dairy farming family, so she understands all the hours I have to put into the place. Whoever I marry one day would have to accept this way of life. (Mary Kalergis, Seen and Heard, 1998:22)

Teresa Douthit (17) lives on a farm in Kansas:

I love being raised on a farm. I like the peace and quiet, as well as the relatively fresh air...Being raised on a farm is unlike anything else. You learn at a very early age to watch for snakes and other natural dangers. You learn about how babies are born, and you get to see it happen. You know where your food comes from and you understand how it got to your table. A person raised on a farm also comes to trust others...You enjoy lots of freedom, and you learn a great deal of responsibility. Your parents can let you go outside without worrying about strangers picking you up. You can take a horse and go exploring and be safe...Everyone on a farm has to pitch in and they all have their jobs...I know that not everyone would enjoy living on a farm, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Farms just seem like the only way of life for me, and I really can’t imagine being locked in an apartment in some city...(Hillary Carlip, Girl Power, 1995: 165-166)

Not all rural youth have the same kind of families or the same situations. There are many who can’t wait to leave. Francis Ianni records this interview with a 17-year-old boy, whose parents both grew up in their Eastern rural area:

My family always lived in Green Valley (not the actual name) and so I have a lot of relatives here...Everybody here know you and they think of you as part of your family. Even in school teachers will tell me about my cousin so-and-so who was a good student, and I always feel that they don’t think of me as a person but as part of a family. It’s going to be very hard for me when I graduate because I don’t want to live round here anymore, but my parents are already talking about me settling down here. (Ianni, Search for Structure, 1989: 70.)

A 14-year-old girl is more frustrated:

All I’m waiting for is to get my driver’s license, graduate from high school, and get away from here. I have this daydream over and over again where I get a car, drive up to the school, yell out "Lloyd sucks!" [Mr. Lloyd is a teacher with strong community ties and represents rural culture.], and then drive off into that big world out there. (Ianni, 1989: 71)

For those who live outside town or in small towns with curfews, a driver’s license is a great window of opportunity. Friends will be picked up and they will head for movie theaters, bars, or dance halls in the nearest large town or city.

Francis Ianni found more television viewing among rural than suburban or urban teenagers.

There was more viewing of television by teenagers in the urban inner-city areas than in the suburban areas, and much less parental control of what was viewed...The highest levels of television viewing were in the isolated rural communities, particularly...where television is the only ‘local’ recreation possible. (Ianni, 1989: 254)

Lack of recreational alternatives may also explain why drinking may be such a problem among rural young people. Since families tend to a dominant social system in rural life (Ianni, 1989: 69), dysfunctional families can make life very difficult and toxic for rural youth. In the state of Maine, there are reports of high rates of abuse among both boys and girls. It is understandable that rural areas have higher rates of runaways.

Ianni’s study found little running away in suburbia, and what there was tended to be brief departures and voluntary returns. Inner city youth were more prone to run away, but they tended to move in with friends and stay in the neighborhood, or at least the city. Running away was most common among rural youth.

We heard much more about running away (as an accomplished fact, in realistic future plans, and in escape fantasies) in...rural communities than in any other type of community. State police investigators we talked with said that the pattern of running away starts early and that kids run ‘as far away as they can get’ each time...They go to the cities, which they imagine can offer the excitement and the opportunities they can’t find (in their rural communities). Some come back, usually defeated in the search, only to run away again after a short time. Others get lost somewhere in their search for a responsive community and either cannot or will not come back home again.

Runaways...often have fragile or even absent identities in families and communities from which they are running, and those they pick up on the streets are often as filled with stress and pain and as disorienting...Even on the streets, where they seek escape and anonymity, however, they also look for some form of bonding, some sense of group structure which they lacked at home, to fight off the loneliness and depression that haunt so many of them. (Ianni, 1989: 73)

So, as everywhere in the youth culture, there are many different types of kids and many different life styles. Even in this brief article we’ve heard from those who love life on the farm and can’t imagine leaving or going anywhere else. There are also bright and enterprising rural youth, doing well in school, who may love home, but look to get out and lead a different kind of life. There are many who don’t expect much of a future but figure they’ll stay and make it somehow. You can even find alternative, punk, and hip hop culture (sometimes called "whiggers") subcultures in rural areas...wannabe gang members, straight-edge skinheads and skinheads filled with hate. There are those who run away to big cities and find themselves into sex, drugs, and crime within a few days...with new street friends and hustlers pushing them quickly into prostitution. The needs and the positive potential of all these young people are basically the same as youth everywhere, and their futures are often up to teachers and adults who really care.



  1. How do you see the contrast between rural, urban, and suburban life? Where would you prefer to grow up, go to college (there are rural colleges), raise a family and spend most your life, retire?
  2. What do you see as the special benefits and disadvantages of rural life?
  3. What, in your opinion, are the special strengths and needs of rural youth?
  4. With what in this article were you most impressed or with what do you take exception?
  5. How might youth work be different in rural areas than in suburban or urban?



    • Most rural youth in the world are somewhat urbanized by radio or television, reading materials and word of mouth.
    • Cultures and countries need a strong rural base for agriculture and for its over-all contribution to the health of a nation.
    • In some ways, youthwork in rural areas is like youthwork in the city. Both situation may lack some of what the media portrays as real living, and the advantages of wealth.
Dean Borgman cCYS