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Small towns (re)growing old. Hidden dynamics of old-age migration in shrinking regions in Germany

In many regions with long-term structural economic and demographic problems, small towns are shrinking as their urban centres, they are losing population, jobs, vibrancy and infrastructure. Yet, knowledge about their trajectories remains vague as studies on urban shrinkage have so far focused on large cities. When monitoring population change of small towns in Germany, there are ambiguous findings concerning their recent development: On the one hand, natural and migration balances were mostly negative and the population is ageing. On the other, they have become target locations of old-age inmigration. Hidden behind general demographic decline, the towns’ elderly populations are growing in relative and absolute terms. Our paper wants to shed light on these processes. It draws upon explorative empirical research in small towns in Germany. We will present, firstly, elderly’s motivations and actual relocation decisions. Secondly, we will show that these trends remain even largely out of sight of municipal decision makers. By way of conclusion, we argue that urban shrinkage is not a linear but rather a contingent process where overlapping trends, agencies and decisions of various actors together with the more fine-grained unevenness of spatial development can result in unexpected and ambivalent local trajectories.

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