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Prodigal daughters

If you need young people in the North, let them go south. Just make sure they have a job to come home to
Business
A woman’s work is never done (Photo: Leiff Josefsen)

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Like many young people living in the North, Barbara Apol, an undergraduate at Fróðskaparsetur Føroya/the University of the Faroe Islands, knows that she must leave her home country if she is to complete her education.

What she is less certain about is whether she will return. “I really want to say yes, but I don’t know,” Ms Apol told a gathering in Copenhagen today.

This trend has long worried Northern decision makers, and with good reason. In the Faroe Islands, for example, half of all university students study in an another country, generally Denmark. Half of them never return. As a result, an estimated 20,000 Faroe Islanders live in Denmark, nearly half of the population of the Faroe Islands themselves.

SEE RELATED: Region building

Worse still, most of those who choose remain away tend to be women, leaving behind a population that is not just smaller and older but also disproportionately male.

Fretting about the leaving may be the wrong approach: students themselves say that the opportunity to study close to home cannot compete with the allure of city life and the cachet of studying at a big university.

Moreover, in the on-line world, out of sight is no longer out of mind. Travelling home remains as expensive and as rare as ever, but social media makes it possible to keep in touch with family and friends, preventing young people from drifting too far away.

Today’s young people, moreover, expect to live in several places before they settle down, says Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam, a Greenlander studying political science in Copenhagen.

SEE RELATED: Half of Greenlanders earning degree abroad return home

A better use of decision-makers’ efforts then, would be to focus on making the North a place young people want to return to after they graduate, according to a report published today by Nordregio, a Stockholm-based research institute.

“Many of those who have been studying abroad would like to move home when it is time to start a family,” says Inga Dóra Markussen, the secretary-general of the West Nordic Council, a parliamentary group made up of members of the national assemblies of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Ms Markussen, who is half-Icelandic, half-Greenlandic, would have preferred to settle in her hometown of Qaqortoq, Greenland, but found there were no jobs available there that would allow her to put her education to use. After living in Nuuk for a stretch, she now calls Reykjavík home.

SEE RELATED: North Atlantic group knocking on Arctic’s door

Creating the types of jobs that would be attractive to Ms Markussen, Ms Høegh-Dam and Ms Apol will require overcoming things like economic activity that is mostly focused on primary industries, a lack of investment and the demographic changes their own out-migration has led to.

“The decline in my hometown has scared me off,” says Kjersti Irinia Rosanoff Aronsen, a native of Vardø, in far northern Norway, which lost a tenth of its population in the past decade. Ms Aronson has just completed a work placement in Copenhagen and will now resume her law studies in Oslo. “It would take a lot for me to move back after that,” she says.

One big step in making the North more attractive, says Lisbeth Nylund, the Norwegian official responsible for compiling the report, are on-going efforts improve the region’s infrastructure.

“It is key to everything,” she says.

SEE RELATED: Northern bloc

Everything, in this case, means things like economic growth, research and development, education and social life. This last should not be under-estimated. “Social and cultural activities are the glue that keeps local societies together,” Ms Nylund says.

Anna Husebekk, the head of Universitet i Tromsø/the University of Tromsø, agrees that infrastructure, and in particular fast internet connections, is crucial to ensuring growth in the North. But even this will not be enough, she warms, if the North does not stop seeing itself as an exporter of fish, lumber and ore and start seeing itself as a seller of the goods these materials are made from.

“This would be a new epxperience,” Ms Husebekk says, “All my life, the North has grown with the help of the south. It is time we keep the value in the North.”

Doing so, she says, will lead to the sort of job creation that will make it attractive to live there. And, perhaps, redefine our understanding of women’s work.