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Column: 'Brain gain' is good news for us all

So, after years of feeling like the only girl of my generation who actually prefers green grass, open spaces and fresh air over the hustle and bustle of bigger cities, I finally feel a little less strange after reading a recent report about 'brain gain.'

Brain gain, I learned, is the newly discovered life cycle follow-up to 'brain drain,' the common phenomenon of promising young people flocking to urban areas to go to college and find jobs after high school, supposedly leaving their rural roots in the dust and never looking back.

Brain drain is not a new thing. Studies have shown that it happens more often than not. Headlines and book titles have been proclaiming so for years. And population trends show growing numbers of young people in metro areas, while as a rule, rural areas keep shrinking and getting older.

Besides just reading about it, I've witnessed brain drain myself countless times. A lot of people I went to school with live in bigger cities today - and like it that way (I'm 32, by the way).

I'm not trying to knock their choice. But I don't share their enthusiasm for big buildings and sardine-can highways. After living in the Twin Cities for several years (I was one of those glossy-eyed 18-year-olds who couldn't wait to escape my small hometown for the 'bright lights of the big city'), I realized that it wasn't for me. A need for nature was in my nature.

But it hasn't been easy to find others like me - unmarried, childless younger adults who live in the boondocks simply because we want to. We're out there - "in the woodwork," as they say - but until recently I thought we were solidly in the minority among our generation, our country preferences misunderstood (or not understood at all) by our urban peers.

Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, that new research shows people ages 30 to 49 are increasingly attracted to rural areas. Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension, has been watching the rural in-migration of this age group since 1990 - and his findings are not what I would have expected.

Citing lower housing costs, more safety and security, a slower pace and a better quality of life, 30 to 49-year-olds are running for the hills, so to speak - leaving the cities for less densely populated areas. Especially in 'micropolitan counties' with core urban populations of 10,000 to 50,000, middle-aged Minnesotans are getting out of town and migrating outwards.

Why is this important?

For one thing, it's something of a silver lining around that dark cloud of 'doom and gloom' hovering over all those aging rural areas that have been feeling helpless against a seemingly inevitable brain drain trend.

For another, it means I'm not such a traitor to my generation, after all. In fact, I'm ahead of my time by several years. A trendsetter, really. (Okay, that might be a stretch).

But most importantly, for all the parents out there about to bid their graduates a tearful 'farewell' as they leave the nest to go and explore the world: it's hope that they will, one day, return home again, bringing all they've learned with them.

We would all certainly have a lot to gain from that.

Good luck to you, graduates. Whether it be the city, country, or somewhere in between, may you all find a place where you belong.