When Small Towns Die Out, Can America Survive?


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When you think of America, what comes to mind? The bright lights of New York’s Broadway? Or a small town, with a quaint main street and homes with well-manicured lawns? America’s self-image is evenly split, and both sides are true, in their own way. But when it comes to deciding on where you want to live, big cities are winning out over small towns and rural villages. Cities are growing, but small towns are fading away!

In one of the biggest population migrations in history, people are leaving rural areas and moving into cities. Not just in America, but all over the world. In every developed nation, small towns are going away. What’s happening?

Early Signs: The extinction of small towns was first noticed in Japan. One by one, their small towns lost population, became deserted, and turned into ghost towns. Japan is an ancient country, with equally ancient traditions and laws. Your place in society, where you live, work, and travel were all rigidly defined. After World War II, Japan’s rigid class system was abolished and citizens could move about more freely, both socially and physically.

Japan invested in their train system, making it one of the world’s best, eventually introducing their famous high-speed Bullet Train. Travel became easy, and the governement strongly encouraged travel and tourism. As citizens became less anchored to their hometown, and children moved away, small towns began to shrink.

Education: At the beginning of the 20th century, education was very basic. As the economy developed, more sophisticated goods were produced, requiring a more educated workforce. The best colleges and schools in the world tend to be located in cities, where the concentration of population provides a constant supply of both students and teachers.

In the US, as late as 1970, only 14.1% of men and 8.2% of women graduated from college. But by 2016, college graduations had risen significantly. 33.2% of males and 33.7% of women graduated from college… triple the number from 1970. This rise in education, and especially the rise in female education. Expectations of graduates, of corporations, or everyone… was on the rise.

Employment: Japan was completely devastated by the war. Virtually every factory in Japan was quite literally burned to the ground. New houses, schools, and factories needed to be built. The government not only eliminated the old social hierarchy, it actively encouraged upward social mobility. While their parents may have never left home, their children went away to study at college. Once they were exposed to travel, graduates were easier for businesses to recruit.

As Japan grew into one of the world’s largest economies, the combination of schools and corporations dramatically changed demographics. In the past, even this combination might not have been enough to break the strong family ties of Japan. But a reliable and extensive train system meant that your family was just a high-speed train ride away. By easing the trauma of breaking up families, the transition from multi-generational families to the modern nuclear family was swift.

Other developing nations followed a similar path. A fruitful career was tied to leaving the countryside. Before 1900, many American families broke up in search of prosperity “out West”. But the breakup was usually permanent. By the mid-20th century, children who moved away could visit their old hometown on a train, a car or even a plane. If that was too much trouble, you could always make a long distance phone call. With few barriers to overcome, children left small towns in unprecedented numbers.

Fertility: For a population to grow, women must have a fertility rate of at least 2.1. Which is to say, 2.1 must live until they are at least a year old. The “2” replaces the parents, and the “.1” allows for diseases, accidents, suicides and other events that may prevent a child from reaching adulthood. In the past fertility rates needed to be much higher, because disease killed so many young children.

In antiquity, families had many children, but few survived to adulthood. Modern medicine has eliminated many of the diseases of early childhood. In America in 1915, infant (a year or younger) mortality rate was 100 out of every 1,000 births. Today it is just 5.9. When all of your children grow up, families become smaller… in America and the rest of the world.

Prosperity: There are exceptions, but higher education and greater income go hand in hand with smaller families. Families can spend more money on fewer family members, improving their standard of living. This is the universal model. This is why cities are gaining population, small towns are shrinking, and whole nations have declining population.

Declining population can be reversed, or at least slowed. By immigration. Whether that immigration is from within a nation or from outside, immigration is the best way to offset falling fertility and a rising number of “leavers”. If America did not have robust immigration, our low fertility rate of 1.84 would have already put our population into decline.

In 2004, Japan’s low fertility rate (1.46) plus an anti-immigration policy pushed their population growth to zero. Since then, Japan’s population has been in decline. By 2065, their population will plunge from 127 million to 88 million. Japan’s population will be smaller… and older.

Age: 15% of Americans are over 65. One out of 6 are retired, and 2 out of 6  too young to work, attending school, in the military, or in jail. That leaves just 3 out of 6 to actually work. Historically, that very few. Of course, if we look at Japan, 26% are already over 65. By 2060, 40% of the citizens of Japan will be over 65. That will be a real crisis. It will completely change Japan’s Culture. Not too much later, the same changes will happen in America.

We’ve seen how education and business work best when they are near a large population. The same is true of healthcare. Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare institutions need a big population to thrive. Medical equipment… such as CAT and MRI scanners and various cancer treatment systems… can cost tens of millions of dollars each. It requires a large number of patients, patients that can only be found in big cities, to pay back the cost of this equipment.

Even basic healthcare may not no be possible in a small town. As the workforce shrinks, small towns don’t just run out of waiters and beauticians. Many small towns have just one doctor or lawyer left. When these critical positions are gone, it is very difficult for a community to survive.

Government: If you’re not in or near your state capital, there may not be very many government employees in your town. However, there are two governement facilities that may determine the survival of your town.

When you run our of teens in your town, the high school may close. High schools are often a critical employer in small towns, and the loss of a high school can be a death blow to the town.

Likewise, the post office is a key service for both small towns and big cities. Unfortunately, the USPS is in deep financial trouble, losing nearly $50 billion over the past few years, and falling short in pension funding by billions more. The USPS has put forward plans to return to profitability, each of which requires shutting as much as 50% of all post offices. Small towns would not lose their post office, they would lose many postal services, such as home delivery of mail. In itself, this may not destroy a town, but it adds one more difficulty for residents and employers.

Of course, with new corporate jobs comes higher pay and prestige. But not necessarily a better lifestyle. In Japan, the life of an average corporate worker… the “Salaryman”… is often a high-pressure life, with long hours at work, and a tiny living space at home. Nonetheless, the best-educated workers have been… and continue to be… lured away from small towns to big cities.

The End: There really isn’t any alternative to the extinction of small towns. The number driving change are irreversible. Populations will stall and then decline. There will still be boom towns, but not many. And most small towns will go away.

Most. Not all. Some small towns will survive. Which ones? The ones with a plan. I know that some towns are preparing for the Extinction. I’ve talked to them. Some are focusing on the next generation of “returners”, who left and are coming back. Others are developing innovative events and businesses to revitalize their towns. Yet others have partnered with their best young workers to ensure that “opportunity” isn’t always found somewhere else.

There are thousands of small towns across America that face extinction. What sort of town is your town? Are you prepared to have your town shrink away, or are you ready to fight? Tell us about your plan!


This entry was posted in Best Practices, Decision Making, Delivering Services, Employment, Small Business and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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