Remote rural communities and the shifting global economy of mobility and extraction
The following is an interview with Marco Eimermann, Assistant Professor of Geography at Umeå University in Northern Sweden. He has been working on Dutch lifestyle migration to Sweden for over a decade, work that has resulted in the collaborative collection with Dean Carson and Linda Lundmark, Dipping Into the North: Living, Working, and Travelling in Sparsely Populated Areas.
Matthew: Let’s talk a little bit about the book, Dipping into the North. Given the growing interest in remote working during the pandemic, this book offers some interesting insights about remote rural areas as an alternative to life in the city. What were you hoping the purpose of the book would be?
Marco: There were several purposes, but the main one was to bust some myths about the countryside as a homogeneous, non-dynamic place. We also tried to bust some myths around lifestyle migrants from Northern Europe finding it easier to integrate into Swedish society than other migrants. We try to give more perspective. We’ve been studying lifestyle migrants, for example, in Swedish villages and sometimes European lifestyle migrants don’t integrate at all for different reasons.
Matthew: But when people talk about integration in Sweden, they never talk about these lifestyle migrants, do they?
Marco: No, people tend to talk about integration of migrants from outside Europe, who are conceived of as ethnically and racially different from Swedes. European Lifestyle migrants are seen as culturally proximate, highly educated, affluent, having the same mind sets, easily able to learn Swedish and thus uncomplicated. They are desired incomers and seldom indicated as immigrants.
Matthew: One of the concepts that you use is a concept of the imaginary in relation to the north. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Marco: Yeah, well that depends on whether you mean the imaginary of the north as a place for winter, wilderness, and WIFI, the three Ws (as our colleagues Doris and Dean Carson call them), and that appeals to lifestyle migrants. For example, where they imagine a certain life, after moving, of freedom, more tranquil lives, more time for each other, more time to spend with their hobbies, or serious leisure, for example, dog sledding in nature, and that’s the kind of imaginary that policymakers engaging in place marketing also use in their marketing campaigns.
Matthew: So there’s a kind of social production of the imaginary through this place marketing?
Marco: To answer this question, it is useful to step back and put this migration into historical perspective. In Sweden, before the 1990s, there was this more or less egalitarian ideology that the quality of life in different places (i.e. villages, towns, cities) should be similar. Taxes were redistributed from the central government to the regions or the rural areas. Then from the mid-1990s, government policy shifted towards more competition between places and they had to compete with other places in the same country to attract people and investment.
The countryside in Sweden and Canada, and other places, was usually a place for resource extraction in bigger industries: forestry, mining, etc. But at least in some places, local economies have turned towards attractive industries, like tourism, and this is also connected with migration for lifestyle reasons: spending time in nature and creating tourism-related businesses that rely on a perception or an image of these landscapes and amenities. These perceptions are shaped by place marketing, which has become important for regional competitiveness in attracting people and resources. There are two images of the rural that we talk about in the book. On the one hand, there is the notion of a rural idyll, the rural as a serene and wonderful place, but there is also the opposite, the rural as a dull place where nothing important ever happens. In the book, we argue that rural spaces are neither.
Matthew: One of the challenges or dynamics that are shaping some of the communities that you look at is out migration and demographic ageing. How do demographic challenges shape place marketing and this competition between regions to draw more people?
Marco: I think in two ways. First, some of the places experiencing major demographic decline are also the ones most eager to be engaged in place marketing to attract new residents like lifestyle migrants. But there’s a difference. Villages with an entrepreneurial spirit are more interested in engaging in place marketing campaigns, whereas there are other places that preferred to focus on attracting youth to return instead of drawing international migrants. This is also addressed in the book as a way to bust myths that youth outmigration is always a bad thing. When starting families, village youth may return with new social networks and knowledge from higher education or work experience from other places like Stockholm or London, which adds to the local opportunities. There are class perspectives in this as well, that are explored more in the book.
Matthew: What are some of the other challenges that rural communities in the north are facing?
Marco: Well, that could be the distance to larger centers, the harsh winter climate here in the north, the sparse population in what were historically single industry towns, so there’s not so many different industries. If one industry disappears, it has a major impact on the labour market. Linked with this are social challenges since there are too few permanent teachers, medical doctors and other medical staff. Also, gas stations and banks, as well as public services like libraries and offices e.g. for employment services or social insurance are closing down.
Matthew: You mentioned earlier that WIFI was one of the three Ws. How does WIFI help to reposition some of these rural areas in a changing Sweden or even at, you know, more broadly changing Europe?
Marco: It depends on the region, but WIFI in the North is perhaps even better developed than in some other parts of Sweden. The internet is important to attracting lifestyle migrants and developing the tourism industry in the North. If you are trying to start a tourism business around dogsledding, for example, and targeting the market in the home country, Netherlands or Germany, well then, a good website and being able to have, at least, a good enough internet connection helps lifestyle migrants in their post migration lives.
Matthew: One of the things that you mentioned also are some of the impacts on receiving communities? What are some of those?
Marco: That the migrants can work as medical doctors, nurses and teachers or that they start running the local food store or gas station. Others may start restaurants, cafés or camping sites. However, there are many practical and administrative obstacles, e.g. due to challenges with the validating of diplomas or regulations forcing intra-EU as well as other migrants to take extra medical courses even though they have been working as a doctor for years. Still, the communities hope for young people to come, whose children attend school, so it could help prevent these schools from closing. They also hope middle aged people will start businesses that help diversify the local economy, and that these migrants bring not only themselves, but also their networks and knowledge, and they help innovate the ways of doing business in the local area. But oftentimes you see that this doesn’t go that fast, and the exchange of knowledge doesn’t work that well. People speak different languages, they have different ideas about where to go, and though there are business meetings with local members of the community, lifestyle migrants often find them less valuable and stop going. So things don’t really change.
The lifestyle migrants realize that they’re only guests. They don’t want to criticize the way things go, but it really doesn’t work the way they want it to work. So, instead, they connect with each other, or they target markets in their home countries more. These are some of the dynamics and challenges.
Matthew: What about struggles also around how the rural idyll might shape the future? Are there struggles over resource development versus tourism?
Marco: In general, many northern regions once had bigger industries, that have since disappeared to Asia. Some people think that a way forward would be to try to attract new, big industries again, meaning maybe a thousand jobs. But some local authorities, and lifestyle migrants, and small business operators say, “no, this place is tranquil, we like it this way, it is attractive to people the way it is, and I want to develop my business, but not too much.” Those are clashes, I think.
Matthew: Finally, how does lifestyle migration to the North, in Sweden, fit within how the economy overall is changing in Europe right now?
Marco: This connects with the struggles in the previous question. On the one hand, lifestyle migrants and others searching for tranquil lives in less crowded regions (like northern Sweden) are indicators of a trend we might call degrowth. The final chapter in the book talks about how we cannot just continue the economic growth model we have followed for so many years. Resources are over-extracted, species are getting extinct, so we need another kind of economy that is less demanding. Thinking about the role of work, production and consumption in people’s everyday lives is part of that. Why should people work five days a week? Some Swedish municipalities have been thinking how they can reinvent themselves as good places for preventing people from getting stressed and having burn-outs.
At the same time, a shift in the global economy towards major new mining projects for a new, green economy of electrified mobility might reinvigorate remote rural areas in Sweden. Some people support this re-industrialisation because it will bring back traditional industrial jobs. But heavy industrial uses may also compete with place marketing as a lifestyle destination based on notions of the rural idyll.
Can these developments of degrowth and re-industrialisation go hand in hand, or will there be major competition between these visions? Perhaps (lifestyle) migrants working in small tourism firms and searching for tranquility in rural idyllic areas see opportunities to combine this with income from commuting, working seasonally or part-time in the larger (mining) industries located elsewhere in the region. Or maybe these tendencies will lead to increased socio-economic inequalities between people and between different villages. Those are some very intriguing issues for northern Sweden and similar regions.
Matthew Hayes is Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Global and Transnational Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada.