Young men increasingly outnumber young women in rural Great Plains

May 15, 2014 by Leslie Reed
Robert Shepard. Credit: Craig Chandler | University Communications

In many rural communities hard hit by decades of population declines, young men increasingly outnumber young women, a new study of Kansas and Nebraska census data shows.

In places with 800 or fewer residents, the proportion of increased by an average of nearly 40 percent as people went from their teens to their 20s.

Those findings suggest leaders should consider the needs of in economic and community development plans, said Robert Shepard, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral candidate who conducted the peer-reviewed research. His study results were published in April's Great Plains Research journal.

"The whole point of this study was to look at it quantitatively, to see if the numbers bear out this story of younger people leaving and not coming back," he said. "My study was important in helping to substantiate that this is a problem associated with gender."

Examining from 2000 and 2010, Shepard found that more than half of 1,627 villages, rural townships, precincts and other locales with 800 or fewer people experienced an increased ratio of young men to young women.

The median increase was just under 7 percent, but many of the smallest communities saw extreme increases—in excess of 200 percent—in the proportion of males to females.

Shepard said he wanted to learn whether young women were staying in rural areas or returning home after college at the same rates as young men.

"There is a lot of awareness that younger people are leaving ," Shepard said. "Where some of the men can come back, because there are a lot of traditionally male jobs like agriculture and industry to return to, many rural communities don't often provide the same opportunity to women. As long as that imbalance is there, it's going to limit the development or growth of that age group."

He found no previous research that evaluated migration patterns of his target group, young adults who would be starting families. Public U.S. Census data doesn't reveal the whereabouts of living individuals, making it difficult to track such patterns.

Shepard chose a snapshot approach. He used the 2000 census to calculate the ratio of boys to girls aged 12 to 17 in more than 2,200 Nebraska and Kansas cities, towns and townships. He compared that figure to the ratio of men to women aged 22 to 27 in the 2010 census.

He chose those age ranges to establish a roughly high-school-aged population cohort in 2000 and to take a second look at it in 2010—a time span allowing for completion of college and establishing a household.

Shepherd found a growing proportion of young women in urban areas during the post-college years. Major cities and suburbs, including Omaha and Kansas City, Kan., had nearly equal ratios of males and females in the 22-to-27 age group. In several others, including Topeka, Kan., and Scottsbluff, women outnumbered men in their age group.

College may be a significant reason why many young women leave rural communities, Shepard said. As of 2000, women comprised 56 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds with at least four years of higher education. Social and economic reasons often prevent college graduates from returning home—they may have formed bonds with new people or the rural job market may be unfavorable.

Shepard said more research is needed to investigate why young women migrate away from rural areas. In previous studies exploring women's attitudes toward the rural Great Plains, some women reported limited job opportunities, while others described a patriarchal culture in some rural communities. No previous research explicitly addressed how rural population change relates to gender, he said.

When he plotted sex ratio changes from 2000 to 2010 on a map, Shepard said he was surprised to find more of a patchwork than a clear urban-rural pattern. Some places that saw significant increases in the proportion of males bordered places that saw equally significant increases in the number of women. He called for more research into why some areas seem more attractive to women than others.

Another surprise was that in some communities, young men left in greater numbers than young women—but the ratio of males to females still increased. That's because the number of women in that community already was small. Blaine township in Clay County, Kan., for example, lost 11 of 19 males and 9 of 11 females from 2000 to 2010. Its ratio of males to females in the cohort changed from less than two men for every woman to four men for every woman.

"The big implication here is that if these ratios don't trend back toward equilibrium, there is some concern about the long-term population stability of those areas," he said.

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3.3 / 5 (3) May 15, 2014
This is no surprise, as people want to have a good life. Men may stay or return to their home towns because they have opportunity there, they get to be a "big fish in a little pond". Women can come back and either be a nurse or a housewife. In this modern age, rural living seems to be like going back in time. Its charm is fading, and it seems to me that rural areas are where dreams go to die! Young people take pride in their ability to move beyond that which they came from. Is it any surprise that they don't want to return to a slow, underpopulated country village after they have lived in a larger city?
2.3 / 5 (3) May 16, 2014
If you're a young woman, the chances that you will be able to find a partner who will support you partially or completely is much higher than if you're a young man. Conversely, if you're a young man, it's more likely that you will end up working at Jiffy Lube in order to pay child support. This is the "patriarchal" issue at its fullest expression: men provide, while women and children consume.

There are also a lot of women who migrate either to New York or Los Angeles. Look at a dating site for either city. You will see an enormous amount of LA-resident women listing themselves as "actors" - in NY it's probably more heavy on "models". These two cities are a major draw, especially for attractive women, and tend to vacuum them away from the inland states. A few of them succeed. Many more fail, wind up working in restaurants - or simply get knocked up and get the guy to pay their bills for them.

If you have the option to commandeer some guy's bank account, why return to the midwest?
4 / 5 (2) May 16, 2014
It should not be a goal to encourage anybody to live in the places described in this article. America will progress quicker with fewer people living in low population density areas. Services will be easier to deliver and communication faster.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) May 16, 2014
Guess I'd better throw a couple of 'em back....
5 / 5 (2) May 16, 2014
I can't speak for every 22-27 year old woman from the midwest, but I do represent one of them. The fact that women now attend college and graduate college at a higher rate then men I think has a lot to do with this -- when anyone (male or female) gets a degree and is exposed to higher education, they have loftier goals and often their career is not going to be found in a town of 1000, they need to move to a larger city to find that career that uses their degree (or go on to post-graduate education such as med school or grad school).

Males attend and graduate college at a lower rate, so they can go ahead and move back in with mom & dad, or move back to get an apartment in their hometown and work at some small town business/store.

And I personally think that women with degrees and high education levels are looking for the same intelligence and qualities in a potential spouse, so they're more likely to find highly educated men in a large city, than in a small old-fashioned town.
3 / 5 (2) May 17, 2014
Hmmm sounds like its time for another war. In prehistory the males who survived inter-tribal conflict won the right to reproduce. Spartan males weren't allowed to marry until age 25.

Old men in neighboring tribes began colluding to stage wars for the purpose of eliminating contentious young troublemakers and solidifying their rule. And also winning continued repro rights with young women.

This also greatly extended the general intelligence of the species. One in 200 people worldwide are descended from genghis khan. This is victory by any measure.

German men who survived ww2 often had many mistresses in addition to wives and large families (citation needed)
not rated yet May 18, 2014
Let's for sure let the men in power in these communities (old white men) decide what services and legal protections (equal pay, access to family planning and medical services free of guilt and judgement?) women need in order to feel like they can be successful in those same communities.

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