Young People and the Highlands and Islands

Combined with the ageing population phenomenon, the trend of outward migration of young people from Scotland’s rural areas is transforming the structures and make-up of remote communities.

Rural areas, particularly those in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, have suffered from net outward migration of young people for the past few decades.

The ageing population is now a well-known demographic trend in the UK and overseas. Over the next 25 years, the number of young people aged 15-30 in Scotland is projected to decline by 7%, during which the country’s overall population will rise by 5%. This trend is compounded in the Highlands and Islands region, where the population decline of young people is expected to be double that of nationally, at 15%, while the region’s overall population remains stable.

Within the region, also, there are areas of particular fragility. The most recent figures suggest that Argyll and Bute could lose almost 30% of their young people by 2041, and one quarter for the Western Isles.

The reasons for this trend are usually complex and multi-stranded. Young people often wish to move to more urban areas for a greater choice of Further or Higher Education post-school, or for more job or career progression opportunities post-study. There are also more practical reasons for outward-migration, including those seeking a combination of more available and affordable housing, access to faster mobile and digital connectivity, better services and amenities and quicker and more reliable transport connections.

The effect of outward migration of young people from rural communities can be devastating. The de-population diminishes the labour pool for areas where there is already a challenge in attracting the necessary skills. The increased average age in these areas make them less attractive for potential inward investors or entrepreneurs, and mean existing businesses can struggle to find suitable staff locally.

Youth depopulation can also lead to a decline in local services and amenities, such as schools, public transport, and arts, leisure and cultural offerings. There is also less demand for new build homes and rented accommodation, and this increase in vacant properties can drive down house prices. It can put pressures on the local healthcare system, combining an ageing population with fewer young people to look after them.

In 2015, ekosgen completed a large-scale, high profile survey about young people’s attitudes and aspirations towards life in the Highlands and Islands. The survey, administered on behalf of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, achieved over 4,400 responses from young people aged 15-30 across the Highlands and Islands and more widely across Scotland.

The study concluded that young people had an overwhelmingly positive view of the Highlands and Islands, but that some still felt the need to move away from the region to access employment and education opportunities. However, the region has a strong pull-factor for those who move away early in life. Many return, or plan to return, in later life, as they view the region as a good place to start a family and bring up children, a place with a strong community spirit and one with a good quality of life.

The challenge for policy makers is therefore two-fold. Firstly, to improve the quality and choice of education, employment and other offers in the region so that young people do not look elsewhere in the first place. This will increase the number of young ‘committed stayers’. Secondly, to address barriers for those who are looking to move (back) into the region, such as the availability of affordable housing or high speed mobile and digital connectivity so that they can still feel ‘close’ to family and friends elsewhere. This will increase the number of potential incomers and returners.