Opportunities for leisure, nightlife, and fun shape whether young people see a place for themselves in rural life. iStockPhoto.com // DisobeyArt

going up country?

Rural life is better known for its pastoral landscapes, tight-knit communities, and relative affordability than for its vibrant nightlife. Accordingly, research on the trend of rural young people around the world flocking to urban areas has tended to focus on economic drivers, like jobs and housing, rather than cultural motivations, such as leisure and entertainment. Recent work by a team of Spanish researchers led by Laura Pavón-Benítez suggests otherwise. The authors posit that youth’s conception of nightlife in the urban-rural imaginary is, indeed, constrained by existing stereotypes, yet presents an opportunity to reimagine rural life at the same time.

To better understand how Spanish youth think about nightlife across contexts, the study, published in the journal Rural Sociology, draws on interviews and focus groups with 118 youth aged 15-24 from a diverse array of class, ethnic, religious, and sexual backgrounds. From these discussions, the researchers found, first and foremost, that youth still perceive rural nightlife as pacific and boring, while viewing cities as the center of excitement, spontaneity, and opportunity. This is because cities better meet youth’s criteria for good nightlife, which include a variety of venues, young people coming together en masse, and a plentitude of alcohol and drugs. The researchers found an exception to this, though, in the form of summer village festivals and fiestas, during which young people thought their nightlife criteria were more easily met.

Consequently, the researchers identified two cultural shifts that offer possibilities for changing youth’s perceptions of rural nightlife. Through the increased use of digital technology, like social media and messaging apps, parties are becoming easier to organize, even in the absence of traditional venues. And relatedly, in recent years, an emerging desire for alternative and flexible venues—often referred to as pop-ups—has expanded the possible locations where nightlife can unfold, potentially making rural spaces more appealing.

As many rural areas look to adapt to urbanization by making their regions more attractive to young people, there has been a tendency for municipalities, and scholars, to focus on the material dimensions of youth out-migration. This study suggests that beyond jobs and housing, leisure and nightlife—in short, fun—are central in shaping how youth view rural life and their place within it.