How do rural communities retain youth in their communities. It’s a tough question, and one without one single answer. Some pieces, but not all, are support of and introduction to entrepreneurship at an early age, encouragement to return, connection to place, and respect of and taking youth seriously.

Community attitude is important. Do we have conversations with our youth encouraging them to return? Do we support their entrepreneurial ideas? Do we take them seriously? These are important questions to consider.

The culture we’ve developed often discourages youth from returning to our communities. When they actually do return, we repeatedly ask them why and can’t get past seeing them as they were.

I had a conversation recently with two young medical professionals who’d gone back to their communities to open businesses. They are successful now and well accepted, but both had considered leaving. Why? People could not get past who these folks were as kids. After all, little Johnny broke that window on Main Street – is he really ready to be a pharmacist? Past perceptions affected people’s present perceptions.

I recently showed three slides as a kick-off to a generational difference presentation: pictures of 16-year olds, 50-somethings, and 65+. Participants were to write down the first thing that came to mind when they saw these slides. The vast majority identified the 16 and 65+ folks by their age only, i.e., “young” or “old.” The 50-somethings were identified by a role, i.e., business professional, etc. Do we value our youth (and elderly community members) if we see them only by their age?

Recently a series of focus groups was held by the University of Nebraska to discuss a new 4-H curriculum at the EntrepreneurShip Investigation (http://4h.unl.edu). Comments from the young entrepreneur’s listening session were quite telling. Some of their comments: “[my community does not] take youth seriously,” “[we get the message that] you are just a kid,” “there is a barrier between new ideas and old ones.” From the education listening session, “ high school students like being respected as individuals and as potential entrepreneurs … let people know this.”

We need to take a closer look at what we are saying, implying and actually demonstrating. Include youth, listen to them, encourage entrepreneurial training, create an entrepreneurial environment and remind them that we’d like them to come home again some day.

Editor’s Note: In Norfolk, NE, the community has taken recruiting its “alumni” seriously. The community has established an organization and website called The Norfolk Area Recruiters. The list job openings within the area, business opportunities, success stories of individuals who have chosen to move back to the area, and of course things to do.