Many European regions currently face shrinking and ageing populations, as well as challenges derived from the socio-economic consequences of recent crises. In this context, the promotion of intergenerational solidarity surges as a policy option to make European societies more resilient, fair and inclusive. Overall, policies promoting social cohesion aim at bringing people, generations and regions together to act upon common challenges requiring interregional and cooperative solutions. How to make this happen?
On Tuesday, 18 October 2022, the project “Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context” organised its first online workshop to discuss local mechanisms of social integration, engagement and agency as meaningful tools to counter demographic challenges of depopulation and aging and prevent their negative social effects. Experts from science, policy and civil society were invited to address three main topics in three thematic panels:
- Panel I: Social engagement: Contributions of younger and older persons to the local community life
- Panel II: Social Cohesion and Mobility
- Panel III: Means and structures of social cohesion: Social innovation, social places, policies for participation in the decision making
Five pivot outcomes came from the engaging conversations in three panels and the plenary discussion session, that shed light on the efforts and needs of different generations in rural and depopulating areas: (1) despite the structural constraints they face, older and younger persons make valuable contributions to their local communities that remain in most part informal and not acknowledged; (2) looking at different stages of people’s life course is crucial to understand what motivates young people and young families to move to and from rural and remote areas; (3) promoting gender equality is of crucial importance for of the well-being of older and younger persons, and it needs to be properly addressed in local policies; (4) social spaces for people to meet and exchange are critical considering the increasing demographic and social diversity and the growing importance of citizens’ engagement and participation at local levels; (5) finally, it is vital to obtain data at local level about diverse needs and motivations of heterogeneous communities.
More than target groups: The needs and contributions of older and younger persons
- Despite substantial youth outmigration in European rural and island communities, many younger people enjoy life in rural and island areas and seek a future in their regions. However, they often experience structural constraints in access to employment, services and affordable housing as well as in participation in local decision-making and solution-designing processes.
- Older persons are a heterogenous group with diverse characteristics and abilities. They contribute to the local communities greatly in terms of social and economic entrepreneurship, volunteer work, mentoring, and care work for family and community members. Yet, most of their contributions remain informal and not acknowledged. To rectify and recognise their contributions to local communities, a fundamental narrative shift is needed: Older persons are active members of their communities and keep their communities vital and going.
- Having older and younger persons as equal partners in designing and implementing local policies as well as including them through councils and appropriate methods of engagement is key to maintaining social cohesion and mitigating youth outmigration. Research evidence as well as the experiences of practitioners show that older and younger persons are willing to exchange ideas and work together. Intergenerational and interregional cooperation can create more resilient and coherent communities.
- Adopting a human rights-based approach at national level with a focus on autonomy, independence and participation can encourage the inclusion and engagement of older persons at local level. In addition, a human rights framework to eliminate discrimination must be included in policymaking considering the gender inequalities, social integration and cohesion at the local level because it concerns the choices available for members of local communities. The local and national policies should aim to foster opportunities for everyone.
- Access to culture is essential for a sense of belonging and for tackling the problems of loneliness and social isolation. In addition to physical infrastructures such as housing, transportation or schools, cultural aspects of life are determining factors when people decide to stay in or return to rural or depopulating areas. It is equally important to support and invest in less tangible aspects of rural and island life, such as social and cultural activities, local traditions, language and heritage. These can contribute to a community’s vitality by strengthening its identity, widening and deepening social bonds and inspiring civic engagement. Initiatives creating resilience should be supported through permanent funding as part of national policies.
Mobility and social cohesion: A question of social justice and equality
- Internal migration is a key driver of regional demographic change, and these movements tend to occur in concert with other life course events. For instance, people tend to move more often as young adults when starting higher education, entering into the labour market, forming a family or dissolving a union. And internal migration in young adult ages has implications for regional population changes and social cohesion. The Covid-19 Pandemic had the greatest impact on this age group in terms of migration behaviour, decreasing overall internal migration but increasing the movement to the suburban or hinterland areas of larger cities.
- Gender roles, norms and gendered institutions influence where and how people live as well as social integration and cohesion. Gender inequalities and social norms and practices producing them affect all aspects of people’s lives including the decision to move, relocate or return to an area, for example when they start a family. Throughout the life courses of people, gender inequalities and discrimination are intrinsic parts of their decisions and choices available for them.
- Similarly, the rural-urban difference must be understood in terms of citizenship. One decisive aspect leading to disadvantages for those living in rural areas is the accessibility to services, opportunities, and welfare conditions. And accessibility can be understood as the population´s right to live wherever they choose with equal conditions and opportunities to fulfil their life expectations as the rest of society.
- The cooperation between local administrations, volunteers and mediators might help people with poor digital skills and lesser chances for mobility, such as the older people and immigrants, to reach administrative services.
- More data is needed to better understand who lives in rural areas, and which characteristics of these places make people leave or stay. More data is also needed to be aware of new dynamics of social cohesion. For instance, newcomers from urban areas might be actually causing tensions and friction in rural areas considering the lack of housing and services.
Means and structures of social cohesion: More cooperation instead of competition
- When local needs and requirements, tradition and innovation can be combined, local communities can enjoy a high quality of life in a resilient environment.
- Members of a local community need an inclusive place of encounter that can impact public life with activities and actions. Social places can meet that need, since they are not short-term projects, but processes designed to remain active on a permanent basis. They provide the base for committed members to exchange and work together. In such spaces, daily social gatherings can be organised, where people get to know each other and learn about each other's needs and opinions. Through contact with decision-makers, they can also start overcoming mistrust and build relationships with them that may pay off in future cooperation.
- Municipalities should promote volunteering and participation opportunities to involve citizens in municipal development. More cooperation and communication between local authorities and citizens of all ages can help the rural and depopulating areas to generate a change in the narrative as well: vivid regions with active citizens.
- Municipalities need sufficient financial resources to be able to provide services of general interest on-site and to maintain social places in order to ensure social participation. If there is a lack of social infrastructure and public services, then there will also be a lack of social places for communication and participation in public space.
- Local authorities and communities should not be afraid of risks, new players and new methods for citizen participation: open meetings, workshops, written consultation, working group meetings, advisory boards, foresight workshops and citizens' panels/assemblies. The testing of new local negotiation processes about the future goals of a community creates cohesion and identification.
- Neighbouring villages should also work together to tackle population changes and challenges, instead of competing for residents. Rural offices and national agencies can act as moderators between these municipalities to promote permanent cooperation.
- People with the necessary skills to mobilise, activate and communicate with the community can also serve as facilitators of participative processes for designing and implementing solutions. Usually, social and cultural workers carry the experience and knowledge to undertake local and social actions and tend to be well-recognised by their communities.
Where is the hope?
- Processes instead of solutionist thinking: Places and communities need tailored strategies to create social cohesion and engagement. There is no “one” policy that can tackle all the problems for every region. Instead, prioritising the needs of each community and enabling processes for intergenerational and intercommunal exchange are fundamental steps to increase the quality of life for all members of local communities.
- Local dynamics on the ground don’t match the “one size fits for all” approach. Collecting more data at the local level can help to empower local authorities to know their communities and their needs better.
- Informing local communities about their rights and chances is equally important. Local authorities are of significance to increase the trust in institutions and democracy and democratic values. Similarly, connecting the local, national and global frameworks can increase trust in institutions and democracy.
Gabriela Alvarez Minte, Regional Advisor on Gender, UNFPA
Sara Bianchi, Program Coordinator, The Southern Sparsely Populated Areas Network
Luis Camarero, Professor of Sociology, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED)
Claudia Neu, Professor and Chair of Sociology of Rural Areas, Georg August University of Göttingen
Filip Pazderski, Head of the Democracy and Civil Society Programme, Institute of Public Affairs, Poland
Silvia Perel-Levin, Main representative to the UN, Geneva, International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA)
Nikola Sander, Research Director for Migration and Mobility, The Federal Institute for Population Research, Germany
Yanina Taneva, Founder and Director, Ideas Factory Association
Ruth Wilson, Postdoctoral Social Scientist in the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences, The James Hutton Institute