electrician fixing a junction box in a large building

Do enough people live in rural areas?

Will people continue to prefer cities or will enough escape to the country?

It could be the culture, the streetside cafes, the latest production of Othello or the chance the Uber eats will arrive before the food gets cold that attracts them, but people want to live in cities.

Realistically it’s the jobs. 

Or at least the perception of both availability and higher quality of paid work compared to options in the rural areas.

This move to the cities is global and kicked off with the industrial revolution in the 1800s that mechanised agriculture and made intensive farming productive but also made it easier for people to make a living in the factories and service sectors in towns and cities. 

Proportionately and in absolute numbers, this is a dramatic switch from predominantly rural to a significant majority of urban dwellers. It has taken 150 years, and the projections have this trend continue through to 2050 and beyond. By then, seven out of ten people will be urban dwellers, many of them in infrastructure yet to be built.

Here is the trajectory of this shift in the US.

graphic to show the shift in the proportion of people living in rural areas from 1700 to 2050

The historical reversal in the proportion of urban and rural dwellers in the United States is almost two sides of a coin. 

Agriculture made this shift possible. The hardy rural folk whose offspring make their way into town grow food so efficiently that there is enough to support billions of people who do not produce their own. More strictly, it is the hardy rural folk supported by a vast energy subsidy in the form of machines powered by oil and fertilisers made in factories.  

The irony is that there may not be enough farmers to keep the production going.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggested a shortfall of 1 million farmworkers across Europe during the pandemic year of 2020.

China’s farmers are short of rural labour, especially at harvest time, even though there are 425 million agricultural workers from 200 million farming households. But a decade ago, there were 700 million farmers. 

About 35% of China’s labour force is in agriculture, compared to 2.5% in the US and 2.6% in Australia. 

It is easy to blame the poor wages and conditions for rural workers. Equally, workers see opportunities in the city as the chance to earn good money from work that doesn’t break their back. 

quote from Gabrielle Chan on the poor conditions for rural workers

Not every task in food production is a job for an automated tractor or by drones or robots. Many, especially at harvest, are still most effectively done by hand or by a hand guiding a machine.

There has to be a rural workforce to generate the cheap, all year round food that the urban dwellers demand. The challenge is that this workforce is in decline across the world and is ageing.

COVID-19 lockdowns taught many that working from home is possible. Maybe working from home on a farm could encourage some people away from the cities.

Only these lifestylers and home workers don’t harvest crops.

Nor are they likely to restore and rehabilitate the land and the vegetation that grows on it. These tasks are a consequence of the 150 years plus of agricultural practice and are necessary so that there can be another 150+ years of food production. 

Weed control, pest control, enrichment planting, monitoring, education and a host of social services need people to live where this work gets done… on the land.

Where are the skilled, enthused people required to grow future food?

Photo by Bailey Alexander on Unsplash

Not everyone is cut out to ride a horse all-day

What sustainably FED suggests

Anyone with half an eye on food security knows there is plenty to worry about. Overreliance on energy inputs, soil degradation, climate impacts, and flaky, just-in-time supply chains make the list of worries that will keep even the most zen of us awake at night.

Population growth was always going to be absorbed in cities. It is the easiest place to put all the extra people where they can be watered, fed and given work to do. Labour is an urban phenomenon.

But the proportion of urbanites has grown to a level where there are not enough people in the rural areas to feed them reliably. The rural labour shortage is not so much about today where there is still enough food grown, and the food security challenge is to distribute the production equitably without waste. Nor is it in the intensive production systems that are increasingly automated with ever more sophisticated technology and robotics.

The problem happens when the energy subsidy runs out and all of a sudden a the trend to greater automation slows or reverses. Then a proportion of global food must be produced from human and animal labour. Where are these people who become overnight farmers?

Even if there is a miracle and a genius comes up with a substitutable power alternative to fossil fuels, fusion. Energy is not the problem anymore but expertise might be.

For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that the median age of farmers is 53 years compared to 40 years for the rest of the workforce. An ageing workforce is also a trend with the median age of farmers increasing by 9 years over the last thirty years. These crusty old fellas need to be able to pass their knowledge on to people they trust. 

An influx of bankers, baristas or barristers will not be trusted by the locals. And there are legitimate doubts that the youngsters have the gumption or the staying power. Not so much for the manual labour and long hours that farming demands, but any newbie has to contend with those crusty curmudgeons that have been working the land forever.

Whatever the difficulties and even if the proportion of city dwellers stays high, the absolute number of people working the land will need to rise if we are to feed everyone well. 

crowded cafe with people enjoying a conversation over coffee
Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

The delights of the countryside have to compete against the social pull of cafes, bars and clubs

Hero image modified from photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed