Well the HSC has finished for another year. That is 10,710 hours of class time – and countless hours of study – finished. While 77,000 young adults across the state contemplate the next chapter of their lives, the challenge for regional cities to hold onto their best academics begins in earnest.

When age demographics in regional cities are compared to the major cities, they show a dramatic drop in the number of people in a community in their late teenage years through to their late twenties. This makes sense. School has finished. These newly minted ‘adults’ are keen to explore the big wide world and see what it has to offer them. Despite the modern advances in technology with the connected world we live in and the fact that regional cities are now thriving economic metropolises rather than farming centres, the mass exodus of our youth continues. In 1849, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the term plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose which literally translates to ‘The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.’

The real challenge for a regional city is how to create a paradigm shift. It is accepted – some would say expected – that once you finish your HSC you venture forth for work; study or travel. Sydney is attractive as are other state capitals such as Melbourne and Brisbane. Even Newcastle and Wollongong are popular destinations. The contradiction seems to be when we look at overall happiness surveys that are conducted across our nation. These show clearly that the happiest people in our nation are living in communities of less than one thousand people. Not far behind those residents are people living in regional urban centres (such as Dubbo) and a long way behind are the major cities which are officially the least desirable place to live.

This is based on survey data that asks the simple question of happiness but when survey results are analysed further, it seems obvious why regional living is better. Some may say that those of us who live in regional areas would not need survey results. Happier people enjoy a lack of traffic congestion and a lack of crime; they befriend their neighbours; they live somewhere quiet and they avoid financial stress (with a huge mortgage the main reason for financial stress). Healthier people are also happier and pollution alone in our capital cities robs city-dwellers of 72 days of their life (on average). Finding time to exercise is much easier in a regional area because minutes – not hours – are spent on the daily commute.

With so much data – and common-sense – showing that regional living is superior to city living, is it still relevant in today’s world of decentralisation and high-speed Internet for our graduating students to rush off to the cities at the first available opportunity?

Age typically brings wisdom. It may be easy for those of us in our elder years to point out all the advantages of regional living but the developing adolescent brain doesn’t always work logically. We can point out all of the surveys and data in the world to our blooming teenagers but the adolescent brain is more interested in adventure; exploration; discovery and thrill-seeking. Regional cities trying to hold onto our youth may be trying to re-wire 200,000 years of evolution, but there are some facets that we can work with.

Our data shows that our age demographic population numbers show a marked improvement versus the major cities when people start to hit their late twenties and early thirties. As people mature and wish to settle into a more comfortable lifestyle and as they find partners and wish to raise a family, in addition to people realising the advantages that regional living offers, people start to move back to – and move to – regional areas.

This presents two practical challenges for regional cities. Firstly, ensuring that our cities are attractive alternatives for people to move to as they mature. Part of that attraction is not just having good facilities and infrastructure in place (cultural; sporting; dining; transportation; etc.) but also making sure city-dwellers are aware of what is available in regional areas. Secondly, we need to position regional cities as a place to allow young adults from major cities to look to when they want to spread their wings and discover the world. Each year I have the opportunity to speak with students from the University of Sydney School of Rural Health who spend either Year 3 or Year 4 of their four year medical degree in Dubbo. Many of these students have been born and raised in Sydney or other major cities. When I ask them what was a primary motivator to spend a year in Dubbo many of them tell me that they wanted to get out of Sydney and see what it is like to live in a regional area. Our modesty may well be preventing us from positioning our cities to attract young adults from the cities.

The two practical challenges mentioned above are more easily met by having the funds to expose our city in an attractive light and that is where a program such as Evocities is gaining significant traction in metropolitan areas. We have a wonderful product in regional living but we also need to be able to advertise the product.

Tell me how you think we should try and stop our brain drain after the HSC at mayor@dubbo.nsw.gov.au.

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