According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, a rural society is one in which there is "a low ratio of inhabitants to open land and in which the most important economic activities are the production of foodstuffs, fibres and raw materials." Half of the world's population lives in rural areas and agriculture still plays a major role in the economies of most nations of the world, according to the official data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Yet, the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. Thus, the global proportion of urban population rose from 29 percent in 1950 to 45 percent in 2005. This figure is projected to reach 68 percent by 2050.
The percentage of the world's population living in rural areas dropped from 79.1 in 1950 to 54.0 in 2000. For major world areas, the estimates of the percentage of the population living in places of less than 20,000 in 2000 were: Africa, 64; Asia, 63.2; Central America, 31.2; South America, 20.3; Europe 29.2; North America, 58; and Oceania, 29.6. In 1940, there were about seven million American farms, home to up to 30 million people (or about 25 percent of the population). By the end of the century there were only about 1.8 million farms and the farm population was less than 2 percent of the population.
The most general current practice for distinguishing rural from urban is to use two demographic variables "absolute size and density of settlement" in defining what is rural. In most countries the dividing line between rural and urban is set at population aggregates of somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. The occupational influence of agriculture has contributed to the persistence of distinctive characteristics in rural society. The alliance of occupation, residence, and family has already been noted.
Farming generally is characterized by small units of operation, with the management and worker roles combined in the farmer and with the work performed primarily by the farmer and members of his family; so the ratio of independent to other workers is in sharp contrast to that in the non-agricultural pursuits. Furthermore, studies covering both Western and non-Western countries, some over several decades, show that the income of farmers is consistently and persistently below that of non-farmers.
Maps of American quality-of-life conditions reveal that poverty and low education attainment are concentrated in rural areas, especially in the rural South, where the nation's food, water and forest resources exist. Over much of the globe, rural poverty is much worse than in the United States. Findings by the International Fund for Agricultural Development show that 1.2 billion of the world's people live on less than a dollar a day. Globally, three-fourths of these poor people live in rural areas.
A basic function of rural societies is the production of food and other raw materials; indeed, in modern society the survival of the urban sector is dependent upon the effective conduct of this function. The cities cannot exist without water, food, fiber, forest products and minerals, all of which have their sources in rural areas. Historically, rural society has functioned as a supplier of people to the city; the relative importance of this rural-to-urban migration is probably greatest in societies that are undergoing modernization. Unfortunately, in exchange for usable natural resources produced by rural people for urban dwellers, rural places often receive the waste products – polluted air, contaminated water, and solid and hazardous wastes – discharged by those in the cities.
Factors which have special significance for rural social changes in the 21st century include the growth and application of technological and scientific knowledge; the increase in urbanization; the growth of the money-and-market economy; and the increase in innovation, reflecting rationality and a favorable attitude towards change. Rural areas are facing major challenges, which arise mainly from globalization, demographic change and the rural migration of young. Policies for rural areas aim to contribute to recognising and making use of strengths and opportunities. Environmental concerns should be considered and integrated during the planning phase of programmes of measures to support rural areas. A large share of policies targeted at land use in rural areas serves to promote agrobiodiversity and environmental measures in agriculture.