To Leave or Not to Leave? Young People and Their Decision to Leave a “Shrinking Region”

  • 2020/02/25     Dresden, Germany

    By Ying Liu

    Migration has been heavily discussed in the media since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 and is associated with various demographic challenges. A region encountering decreasing population and socioeconomic decline, termed as a “shrinking region”, often creates growing biopolitical concerns for the local government, such as a shift in the workforce, tax income, and consumption levels.

    At Nexus Seminar No. 42 “To Leave or Not to Leave? Young People and their Decision to Leave a ‘Shrinking Region’” held on 20 January 2020, Prof. Judith Miggelbrink, Chair of Human Geography at TU Dresden, shed light on the problem. The seminar was based on research that took place from 2013 to 2016 and current developments. Taking the city of Altenburg as a case study, Prof. Miggelbrink applied a qualitative research approach to young inhabitants at the age of 16 or 17.

    At the start of the lecture, Prof. Miggelbrink discussed factors influencing out-migration, which are not only personal but also at the societal level. Young people, who want to break a formulaic life in their home region, decide to move out in pursuit of a different new life in another region, where they can develop their careers, further their education, benefit from better welfare, or gain higher levels of consumption.

    Put on the societal scale, technology facilitates out-migration. The development of media makes long-distance communication possible, for instance. Family and peers are considered relatively influential on the young generation’s decision-making. For example, some parents encourage their children to leave the home region by almost undermining its image. For young people, once they see their peers set up a new life in other regions, they are more likely to be motivated to follow suit.

    Behind inter-group relations, regional stigma plays an important role. To take an in-depth look at regional stigmatisation, Prof. Miggelbrink presented empirical findings, which stem from a series of focus groups. Adolescents may have a prejudiced image of their home district when hearing other perceptions about it, which can stir or replace their initial viewpoints, and inspire them to migrate out of the town.

    It is worth noting that these factors are interdependent, which complicates the problem of out-migration – there are multiple causes of it. This complexity tells us that it is not a stable but rather dynamic model.

    A lively discussion that followed saw a variety of interesting questions raised, spanning from the methodology of selecting a target research region and factors impacting out-migration, to specific policies that Altenburg has implemented when confronted with the risk of “shrinking”. Climate change was also brought up by a participant as an inevitable and objective factor resulting in out-migration. That is, climate change may cause residents to have to leave for safety.

    Migration is a social and economic issue, Prof. Miggelbrink stressed in the end, and the youth should be given the freedom to choose, which can encourage them to strive beyond the old images of their home regions.


    Meyer, Frank, Miggelbrink, Judith, and Schwarzenberg, Tom. 2016. “Reflecting on the Margins: Socio-spatial Stigmatisation among Adolescents in a Peripheralised Region”. Comparative Population Studies, 41(3-4), 285–320. (Available here)