Introduction: Regional Youth Outmigration

Youth outmigration has been a serious dilemma for regional Australian communities for decades, as it is throughout the world (Argent & Walmsley, 2008). Sometimes referred to as ‘the rural exodus’, approximately 50% of regional Australian youth leave their hometowns with those remaining likening the phenomenon to ‘a town losing its heart’ (Coffey et al., 2018). Complex reasons for regional youth outmigration exist. Contextual factors, such as access to higher education and more diverse employment options, are relevant but so are symbolic factors such as the lure of urban lifestyles that are seen to embody youth culture (Alston, 2004; Farrugia, 2016; Stratford, 2015). Past research has highlighted the negative consequences of prolonged youth outmigration for regional communities—the loss of social capital, the structural ageing of the regional work force, and the effects on the sustainability of community services and businesses (e.g. Dufty-Jones et al., 2013; Luck et al., 2011). However, and considering our increasingly mobile world, regional communities realise that simply stemming the flow of outmigration is not the solution to the problem. Return migration of educated and experienced young people can be of great benefit to regional areas (Bourne et al., 2020).

Researchers have traditionally regarded rural–urban migration as a push–pull phenomenon, characterised by a rural push towards the urban created by a ‘pull’ based on the potential for higher earnings (Alvarez-Cuadrado & Poschke, 2011). As such, ‘upward mobility’, or a desire for wealth and prosperity, is thought to be the main driver of young people’s decisions to move to the city (O’Shea et al., 2019). However, Schewel (2019) argues that an emphasis on why young people move creates a mobility bias which acts against those who stay by equating their decisions with a lack of agency or aspiration (see also Brown et al., 2017). Schewel (2019) challenges this mobility bias by suggesting that immobility is frequently desired. Moreover, a greater appreciation of the reasons behind immobility opens up migration research to factors other than economic ones such as the affective, embodied and material dimensions of internal migration decision making (McLaughlin et al., 2014; Thompson, 2017) as well as the role of more-than-human assemblages and agencies in migration decisions (Zhang, 2018).

The Engaging Youth in Regional Australia (EYRA) Study focussed on three case study locations across Australia with strong local economies and associated educational and employment opportunities. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, each of these areas has a similar rate of youth outmigration as other regional areas of the country despite the ability for young people to work and study locally and develop careers (ABS, 2017). By focussing specifically on areas with these characteristics, the study was able to examine what factors other than the need to leave for education and employment might be influencing regional youth to ‘stay or go’. The study also included young people who had left but decided to return, either to their own town or to another regional location.


Case Study Locations

The regional areas included in the EYRA Study had each recorded a steadily declining youth population in the 15–21-year-old age group each year from 2011 to 2015 (ABS, 2017), and they each play an important role in Australia’s food, energy and/or resources sectors. Figure 2.1 marks each of the case study locations on a map.

Fig. 2.1
A map of Australia depicts the 3 pointed areas as port Hedland, port Lincolnport, and Griffith.

Port Hedland (orange pin), Port Lincoln (blue pin) and Griffith (green pin) on a map of Australia. Image Credit: ciloart

The first town, Port Hedland, is on the traditional lands of the Kariyarra people who call the place Marapikurrinya to reflect the hand-shaped formation of the tidal creeks that branch out from the harbour (The Town of Port Hedland, 2022). The town is regarded as the gateway to the Pilbara region in Western Australia, which has become increasingly important economically for lithium mining (required for solar batteries) and tourism in the Far North (Finance News Network, 2017; Business News WA, 2016). It has also been described as an energy and resources boomtown and is home to Australia’s largest bulk export port recording an average of 460 million tonnes throughput each year (The Town of Port Hedland, 2022). Hedland, as it is known locally, is a twin town comprising Port Hedland and South Hedland, which are separated by approximately 15 km. Port Hedland is mostly ‘home’ to itinerant workers or permanent residents who work in the mining industry. South Hedland is home to a local population including a substantial Aboriginal population of around 20% (ABS, 2017), and contains most of the twin town’s social infrastructure, for example, shops, community hubs, services and sports centres.

The second town, Port Lincoln, is a major commercial centre for the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, a location that farms sardines, mussels and oysters (RDA, 2014). The Eyre Peninsula is the traditional home of three Aboriginal groups—the Barngarla, Nauo and Wirangu peoples. When British colonisers first arrived in the area, the Barngarla people showed them how to locate fresh water which saved their lives—the Barngarla name for the area is Kallinyalla, meaning ‘place of sweet water’ (City of Port Lincoln, n.d.). Now known as Australia’s seafood capital, the area was recently ‘selected’ by Chinese investors for the production of seaweed and is a natural deep-water harbour, making it a gateway for international exports of the seafood from the region, which is sent to Southeast Asia and around Australia’s seaboard (ABC Rural, 2015).

The third and final town involved in the study was Griffith in New South Wales. Griffith is on the traditional lands of the Wiradjuri people, the largest Aboriginal group in Australia whose lands extend over 60,000 km. There is also a significant Wiradjuri population in Sydney, the state’s capital (MLDRIN, n.d.). Griffith is part of the Murrumbidgee irrigation area referred to as Australia’s Food Bowl. Appropriated in the mid-1900s by squatters from the mining areas around Broken Hill in New South Wales, the town attracted post-war (World War II) immigrants, particularly from Italy, who also brought agricultural farming practices with them (Griffith Genealogical and Historical Society, n.d.). At the centre of the Riverina district in New South Wales, Griffith is now the most diverse food-producing town in Australia (NSW Government, 2017). It has recently seen a burst of new investment to meet the demand for almonds, a need fuelled by the rising popularity of, and necessity for, gluten-free and dairy-free foods (ABC Rural, 2017).

While being important to Australia’s economy, each of the case study locations has a distinctive landscape which is also a reflection of their industries (see Fig. 2.2). With its wide bay and shoreline, Port Lincoln is dominated by the blue of its ocean whereas Port Hedland is covered with rich, iron-red dirt. Griffith, with its fields of grapes, citrus and almond trees is predominately green. The colours of these landscapes were represented in the ‘Finding Home’ exhibition by one of its commissioned artists and were used throughout the study to ‘colour-code’ the different areas.

Fig. 2.2
Three photographs a. Panoramas of port Heland. b. Port Lincoln port. C. Griffith. The photos show clouds, water, sand, and trees.

Panoramas of Port Hedland (top), Port Lincoln (middle) and Griffith (bottom). Photo Credit: Author

Participants and Recruitment

In the initial stages of the research in 2019, I visited each of the towns twice. On the first visit, I walked around town for a couple of days to familiarise myself with each place, visiting some local attractions but mostly staying in the areas where local people gathered. On the second day of these visits, I also took photographs as well as video footage using a tripod and digital camera. This made me very conspicuous in public, and made a few people curious, but for the most part my activities were ignored. Between the first and second visits, I also visited the capital city of each state and met with senior policy officers at their respective local government associations. This was the starting point for the development of a wider network of stakeholder organisations who were either interested in contributing to the project in some way or learning about the findings. This list of organisations would grow to over 200 by the end of the project, each of them receiving a copy of an industry report based on each of the study’s four stages—stakeholder views, youth perspectives, the exhibition and policy recommendations.

Although a series of in-person stakeholder discussions took place during 2019, young people were not recruited to the study until 2020, after the stakeholder network was established. While this staged approach made sense at the beginning of the project, the sudden onset of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 meant that none of the interviews could be conducted with young people face-to-face. Forced to ‘take a back seat’ when it came to the interviews, I took on what would become an arduous task of recruiting participants online from a pool of people who were the most affected by lockdowns—young people who are over-represented in the hospitality industry and other forms of insecure employment as well as older millennials burdened with new childcare and home-schooling activities alongside ‘work from home’ arrangements. All of this, in addition to mental health issues and general anxiety, made the recruitment process slow and lengthy as young people were understandably reluctant to add to their existing stresses and responsibilities at such a challenging time.

In the end, 50 young people from three regional towns aged 18–34 years—15 from Griffith NSW, 16 from Hedland (Port and South) and 19 from Port Lincoln—were recruited via targeted advertising through a dedicated social media page. A sample which encompassed the full range of the millennial age group was sought so that it might include young people who had chosen to stay, those who had left but also those who had returned to a regional area having left for a time. In all, the sample comprised 17 participants who had chosen to stay in their hometown, and 33 who had left with around two-thirds of those returning either to their hometown or a different regional location. Most participants identified as being of English or Scottish heritage with the remainder describing their heritage as Indian, Italian, Filipino, Polynesian or Slovenian. Two participants identified as Aboriginal Australians. Although not purposively sampled in this way, the cultural backgrounds of the participants were broadly representative of the youth populations in each area.

Data Collection and Analysis

Dr Theresa Harada was employed at the beginning of 2020 as a postdoctoral research assistant on the project because of her extensive experience as a qualitative research interviewer. I, instead, planned to conduct a series of postqualitative research interviews based on a walking method like the one I had used in the past and which was more closely aligned with my own theoretical orientation (see Boyd & Hughes, 2020; Springgay & Truman, 2018). However, due to state border closures, the walking interviews had to be abandoned and all interviews were formally conducted by Dr Harada online after potential participants had made initial contact with me via the chat function on the study’s social media page. Participants were offered interviews by video meeting platforms or over the phone to accommodate those without internet access, but most interviews were completed via video call. This approach received ethical approval from the Human Ethics Research Committee at the University of Melbourne.

Interviews were recorded and then transcribed confidentially by professional transcribers before being independently analysed by Dr Harada and me. Dr Harada analysed the transcripts with the aid of qualitative software registered as NVivo12, and I adopted a more intuitive approach. This dialectic was fruitful (see Swanwick, 1994 on intuition and analysis). Via a subsequent collaborative and iterative process, we identified and refined themes, interpreting them through a cultural geographic lens informed by contemporary feminism and non-representational theory (see Boyd & Harada, 2021). I won’t be representing our analysis here, but rather will summarise the main findings in a style and format which is more descriptive and less theoretical than our journal article. It was in this plain language/thematic format that findings were communicated to stakeholder organisations and discussed and shared with participants and artists who contributed to the ‘Finding Home’ exhibition, and so the findings in this form best represent the foundation of the creative work.

Summary of Findings

Safety, Security, Belonging and Intimacy

By far, the young people who had chosen to stay in their hometowns after leaving school cited a sense of belonging, security, safety and community as their reasons for staying. Young people who had decided to stay in their hometowns said that they felt comfortable and secure in their surrounds and that others would ‘look out for them’. For example:

I love Griffith and that is why I have not left, and I have stayed here. I guess it’s good growing up in a community where a lot of people know you, so, if you are out, or whatever, people will look out for you. Everyone always says if they walk down the street with me that I know everyone, I just stop and talk to people and whatever. So, it’s just home, it’s like a big extended family living in Griffith.

I think country towns, they have more security, and more like a family feel. I think there’s a level of intimacy in the relationships you develop in the community.

Feeling Unsafe or Uncomfortable in the City

Related to the first theme, participants who had chosen to stay described experiences of the city where they felt crowded or unsafe. Those in this category said that they didn’t like the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city and contrasted these with feelings of comfort and safety in their regional homes.

I was not confident to go to the city and live by myself. I am a big fan of wider populations, not the city. I would go down for a holiday and to go shopping, but I am not a big fan of crowds.

I like my peace and quiet, and I also like to have good space around me. I don’t like hearing cars all the time. I am not big on change.

Regional Towns as Open and Accepting of Difference

Young people who had chosen to stay in these hometowns described them as open and tolerant, with many of them attributing this to the multicultural diversity (and the celebration of it) in their communities. Some indicated that visiting the city was their first exposure to overt racism.

So, Hedland, I have always referred to it as a melting pot of people, because there are so many different cultures here, like, it is not the place to be a massive racist. In Hedland, if you threw a rock, you would hit people from different cultures.

My hometown is very vibrant. It’s a quite open and tolerant place to live.

Feelings of Stagnation or Suffocation in a Regional Town

Participants who had decided to leave described regional towns as stifling or restricting. They described not being able to breathe and felt that they were ‘freer’ in the city. These feelings were related to ‘stuckness’ or stagnation, as well as having a lack of anonymity in a regional town.

I always tell people I loved growing up in Griffith, I just could not live in Griffith. I do not hate it, I like to go back and visit, but any more than three days I just get frustrated. I feel like I cannot breathe in Griffith.

… it was my time to make a mark on myself. I didn’t know anyone. Nobody knew me. I couldn’t walk through the door, and they’d already know who all which family I was from, and who I am. It was just really invigorating to not be known when you walk down the street.

Exploring Identities and Finding Community

For some young people in the study, leaving their hometown for the city offered an opportunity to escape past lives or explore their identities as adults with new people in a different environment. This was especially the case for LGBT young people whose move to the city was accompanied by a desire to connect and be part of the wider LGBT community.

So I couldn’t get out, basically I couldn’t wait to get out of Griffith. That whole like, ‘I want to get out of this small town. I’m sick of being the only gay in the village’.

Embodied Experiences of ‘Otherness’ in the City

Regardless of whether they wanted to stay or go, participants described an acute awareness of bodily differences in the city. This was mostly related to wearing different clothes and having a ‘country accent’. While most of the young people who had left their regional area ‘couldn’t wait to get out of there’, some didn’t have the positive experience of the city they’d expected:

I hadn’t really thought about my image at all, or what I wore, or my weight until I went to Melbourne. Then I realised that how I looked and what I was wearing wasn’t great, wasn’t very trendy. I became aware of my figure, which was not a good thing.

I felt all the people that I went to uni with, even just walking around in the city, they all wore different clothes to me. I didn’t wear country boots or flannelette shirts or anything, but they all had the city style and they listened to city music … I don’t know, I was just different. Even the way I spoke and everything was different.

Material Affordances of Rural Places

The main reason for wanting to return to a regional area was wanting to re-experience the ‘material’ (or physical) benefits of country places such as fresh air and open spaces. Participants who were also parents said that they wanted their children to have similar ‘carefree’ experiences during their childhoods as they had had.

… we have got the pros of being surrounded by the most beautiful beaches and space, if you go to the beach someone is not right next to you. So, all that kind of stuff I think is very special.

I always felt I was very lucky, especially here in Griffith. We had open spaces, fresh air, places to run around and get dirt under your fingernails, kick a ball, stuff like that.

All my life I have always grown up seeing old people having a yard, and they have their roses and their chickens or have their dogs and their cats, and they seem more content, like they have more of a purpose in the country; they can grow their own vegetables here.

Solace of Serenity

In contrast to feelings of stagnation and suffocation, those who had returned to a regional area described atmospheres of stillness and slowness, compared to the city, that felt desirable and comforting. Some young people in this group had also experienced this as a shift, where the initial attraction of the ‘fast pace’ of the city had ‘worn off’ for them.

When I first came back, I moaned, because everything was not at the tips of my fingers anymore. But then coming back and just realising the pace is so much slower here.

It was horrible [in the city]. It was uncomfortable, I have never driven with heavy traffic before, it was big and scary and I just wanted to come home and I just missed being comfortable in my hometown, because that is all I knew.

Finding Home

Participants talked about ‘finding home’ as a journey they were still on. Some also uncoupled home from place, equating it with a sense of identity or belonging within themselves regardless of where they were living. Others had found it was only by leaving a regional town they realised where it was that they really belonged.

At the time that I decided to leave, I remember I was just feeling really disconnected from Port Lincoln, like I could not wait to get out of here kind of thing, really could not wait. But what I have learned over the years is that I can make home wherever I am, I think, my whole journey has been about creating home in myself.

That is something which, although our cities are quite good for it, I never felt satisfied, because there is a big portion of why I am that it just wasn’t. What I really wanted and where I really feel happiest is being back home.

Conclusion: Affect and Materiality

There is not a lot in the findings from this second stage of the EYRA Study that would surprise human geographers or, in fact, any scholar in the social sciences or humanities. However, there is a stark divide between our academic understandings of people-place relations and public policy/discourse. Even within the academy, there is still a tendency to separate thinking from feeling, whereas Schaefer (2022) argues: ‘knowledge-making is not just entangled with feeling, as some claim (Feeling can shape how we think, under certain circumstances), but encompassed by it (Feeling is necessary for thinking; there is no thinking that is not feeling)’ (emphasis in the original; p. 5). This accords with the first key message from the EYRA Study, as far as it relates to its participants, and that is: Regional Australian youth make internal migration decisions according to how they feel.

Feeling, however, is not just a synonym for affect and emotion but also what we sense—what Dewsbury (2003) refers to as ‘knowledge without contemplation’. The blue of the ocean, the green of the trees, the freshness of salty air, the feeling of dirt under fingernails, the rhythm of things, the excitement of things, the stillness of things, or just that peaceful, almost untouchable, feeling of being in a wide, open space. These ‘material’ qualities of place create desire as well as contentment, comfort and security. This dimension of ‘liveability’ affects internal migration back to regional Australia (Houghton & Vohra, 2021) and relates to the second key message from the EYRA study: The material affordances of rural places draw some regional Australian youth back home.

The third key message from the EYRA Study that emerged over time, partly in response to the stereotypes that seemed to fight against it, was: Regional youth who choose to stay can experience stigma for that making that decision. This third message would become central to the ‘Finding Home’ exhibition which asserted that young people should be able to make decisions about whether they stay, leave or return to a regional area (where they can) according to what works best for them and without prejudice.