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Youth and adult attitudes and perceptions of living life in a small town.

This article is a follow-on study to a previous work of the author's which addressed how youthful citizens of several small towns in South Dakota "liked" their small town living (1,2). The findings were mixed. Youth perceived that prospects were deteriorating in their communities ("getting worse," as opposed to "no perceived change" and "getting better") for jobs (42.5% of those responding to the survey), retail (46.8%), and recreational (27.5%) opportunities. On the other hand, the following were perceived to be getting better: community appearance, cultural activities, acceptance of change, volunteerism, quality of community leadership, a "good place to raise a family," and the future of the community. Citizen perceptions about their community impact economic development initiatives. If a community's citizens are pessimistic about their town, they are less likely to invest in the future of their community through economic development initiatives. The purpose of this article is to relate the results of the same survey given to adults in these communities and compare and contrast those findings with the findings of the youth survey.


Helping small towns to become in essence "entrepreneurial organizations" has been the goal of the Community And Family Enterprises--CAFE--program. During the last two years, the author and others at the University of South Dakota School of Business have been designing and implementing an entrepreneurial approach to small community economic development. The mission of CAFE is to assist communities in becoming successful by expanding and strengthening citizen participation and establishing an "entrepreneurial mindset" and leadership structure which consciously, continuously, and systematically creates and discovers economic opportunities for the community. Thus far seven communities in South Dakota have applied CAFE to various degrees. A great deal has been learned during this process and the model continues to evolve. The CAFE approach has drawn from many sources (see, for example footnote 3) and from the author's experiences.

Much of what has been learned has come from surveys conducted during the CAFE process. The purpose of this brief paper is to describe the results of two surveys, "Youth Perceptions of Change" (YPC), and "Adult Perceptions of Change" (APC). The results of these surveys have caused the CAFE development program to more strongly consider the role of youth and adult perceptions of "small town life" in their communities.

The YPC was distributed to youth in each of the seven CAFE communities with the assistance of local high school officials and teachers. The APC survey was either completed during community meetings or was distributed neighbor-to-neighbor within the community. Both surveys asked whether certain described situations in their community were "Getting Better," Getting Worse," or "Staying the Same." The primary goal of the surveys was to gauge youth and adult perceptions of their life in their small town and whether these "living conditions" were improving, deteriorating, or showing no change. Size of the towns ran from about 400 to 1,300 people and all were located in rural or agricultural areas of the state. A total of 695 youth surveys and 559 adult surveys were completed and returned.

Survey Results

Survey Results by Individual Community.

How differently do young people and adults perceive their communities? In the community of Viborg, youth and adults have almost identical perceptions while perceptions of youth and adults in Irene are extremely different (see Table 2). Excluding all perceptions with ties designated as "T", Viborg and Hurley show no disagreements between youth and adults in the community, Lake Preston and Alcester one each, Freeman two, New Underwood four, and Irene the most "disagreeable" with eight. With 84 chances for disagreement (12 perceptions and 7 communities), disagreements between youth and adults occurred 16 times (19 percent of the time). Is this result more or less than could be expected? Take out Irene and the "disagreement ratio" is 8/72 or 9.5 percent of the time. It's interesting to note from the table that adults and youth are in agreement for each community for the perceptions "jobs", "retail", "appearance", and "live." Also of note is that in 12 of the 16 cases showing disagreement, adults perceive the situation as getting worse while the youth perceived those same situations as getting better.

Table Key:

"Jobs": Job opportunities

"Retail": Retail shopping opportunities

"Rec.": Recreational opportunities

"Appear.": Overall community physical appearance

"Cultural": Cultural opportunities

"Att. Youth": Attitude of youth toward community

"Change": Attitude of community toward change and growth

"Vol.": Volunteerism

"Apathy": Citizen apathy

"Lead.": Quality of community leadership

"Live": Good place to live

"Future": Future of community

"W": Getting Worse

"B": Getting Better

"T": Tied; as many W's as B's.

"Y": Youth

"A": Adult

Perhaps a more accurate measurement of community adult and youth differences in perceptions, is to compare the percent of youth versus percent of adults who perceived things were getting better over all 12 of the categories. This measurement is calculated by comparing the percent of adult responses which indicate they think things are getting better in their community versus the percent of youth responses which think the same and is shown in Table 3. As mentioned earlier, the community showing the best perception alignment between adults and youth is Viborg. The divergence of perceptions measure for Viborg is 5.8 (82.9% of adults think things are getting better versus 77.1% for youth). At the other extreme is Irene, showing a divergence measure of 31.0 (66.4%-35.4%). What does this measure suggest? Is this a measure of intergenerational conflict? Is Viborg a "healthier" community than Irene? Does it have a better future? These questions will be kept in mind as these communities progress through the CAFE process.

Survey Results Combining Communities

When all surveys from all adults (559) and all youths (695) from all towns are combined by perception, it was discovered that youths and adults tended to agree that community appearance, citizen attitudes regarding change and growth, volunteerism, quality of community leadership, a good place to raise a family, and town future, were getting better (Table 4). They also agreed that job opportunities and retail shopping were getting worse. Their perceptions differed however on recreational opportunities (more youths thought they were getting worse than better; adults thought the opposite), cultural opportunities (more youths thought they were getting better than worse; adults thought the opposite), and attitude of youth toward the community (more adults thought it was getting better; youths disagreed). The perception among youth regarding aparthy was nearly tied (slightly more youths felt that aparthy was not as prevalent) while adults thought apathy was "getting worse." Respondents not choosing either "Getting Better" or "Getting Worse" selected "No Change".


The data suggests that people in general like their town, but are concerned with the economic outlook. Clearly if both adults and youth in the same town perceive life in their town as "getting worse," the economic development challenge may be expected to be difficult. On the other hand, if both adults and youth perceive life as "getting better," the economic development challenge may be more promising. The situation reflecting mixed adult/youth perceptions presents some interesting speculation. Is a community more receptive to economic development initiatives if the youth are more positive about their town than the town's adults? Or, can anything be accomplished when the adults of a small town are pessimistic about the town's future, whatever the perceptions may be of the community's youth? This paper suggests that economic development specialists may wish to gauge the perceptions of both adults and youth regarding the condition of life in small towns. These and other questions will be explored by the author as these communities progress through the CAFE development process.


(1) "CAFE Youth Survey Article," South Dakota Business Review, Business Research Bureau, School of Business, University of South Dakota, September 2004, Vol. LXII, No. 1

(2) "The Cafe Approach: New Tools to Foster Citizen involvement in the Community Development Process in Small Rural Towns," CD Practice, Community Development Society, Issue No. 10, June 2005.

(3) Schaeffer, Peter V. and Scott Loveridge, eds., "Small Town and Rural Economic Development: A Case Studies Approach," Preager/ Greenwood, Westport CT., 2000, Google Books Partnership Program. Also, John P. Blair, "Local Economic Development: Analysis and Practice," Sage Publications, London, 1995.
Table 1

Completed Surveys by Community - 2004

Community Youth Adult Population (2000)

Irene 93 43 432
Viborg 121 99 832
Freeman 133 119 1317
Alcester 145 92 880
Hurley 29 64 426
Lake Preston 99 102 733
New Underwood 75 40 616

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2004.

Table 2. Youth and Adult Perceptions by Community - 2004

Community Jobs Retail Rec.

Hurley Y W W W
 A W W W
Lake Y W W B
Preston A W W B
New Y W W W
Underwood A W W 8
Irene Y T W B
 A W W W
Viborg Y B B W
 A B B W
Freeman Y W W B
 A W W T
Alcester Y T W W
 A W W T

Community Appear. Cultural Att.Youth Change

Hurley B W T T
 B W B B
Lake B W B W
Preston B w B W
New B B W W
Underwood B W W W
Irene B B B B
 B W W W
Viborg B T B B
 B B B B
Freeman B B W W
 B B T B
Alcester B W B B
 B W T W

Community Vol. Apathy Lead. Live Future

Hurley T W T B T
 T W B B W
Lake B B B B B
Preston B W T B T
New W W B B B
Underwood B W W B B
Irene B B B B B
 W W W B W
Viborg B B B B B
 B T B B B
Freeman B W B B W
 B T B B B
Alcester B T B B W
 B W T B W

Table 3: Divergence of Perceptions
Between Youth and Adults
by Community - 2004

Viborg 5.8
Lake Preston 6.3
Hurley 6.4
Alcester 6.8
New Underwood 9.1
Freeman 11.6
Irene 31.0

Table 4: "Getting Better" and "Getting Worse"
Perceptions of Youths and Adults (all seven communities) - 2004

 "Getting Better"

 Youth Adult
Perception No. Perc. No. Perc.

Jobs 116 16.7% 55 9.8%
Retail 121 17.4% 105 18.8%
Recreation 155 22.3% 146 26.1%
Comm. Appear 372 53.5% 283 50.6%
Cult. Opp 223 32.1% 91 16.3%
Att. Of Youth 103 14.8% 147 26.3%
Att. Re Change 219 31.5% 144 25.8%
Volunteerism 263 37.8% 205 36.7%
Apathy 136 19.6% 47 8.4%
Comm. Leadership 231 33.2% 156 27.9%
Place to live 398 57.3% 311 55.6%
Future 251 36.1% 186 33.3%

 "Getting Worse"

 Youth Adult
Perception No. Perc. No. Perc.

Jobs 295 42.5% 253 45.3%
Retail 325 46.8% 272 48.7%
Recreation 191 27.5% 134 24.0%
Comm. Appear 58 8.4% 56 10.0%
Cult. Opp 148 21.3% 135 24.2%
Aft. Of Youth 151 21.7% 134 24.0%
Aft. Re Change 129 18.6% 127 22.7%
Volunteerism 106 15.3% 105 18.8%
Apathy 132 19.0% 161 28.8%
Comm. Leadership 87 12.5% 111 19.9%
Place to live 65 9.4% 35 6.3%
Future 144 20.7% 139 24.9%

Robert J. Tosterud is Professor of Economics and Holder of the Freeman Chair of Entrepreneurial Studies at the School of Business, The University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota.
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Author:Tosterud, Robert J.
Publication:South Dakota Business Review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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