How can my state of Vermont attract greater numbers of younger people?
I’d like to kick off a discussion with this post. I’m not an expert in the issue, but am learning fast, and hope to learn more, with an eye towards actually changing things. It’s a bit of a change of focus for this blog, as I haven’t discussed Vermont very much. But I’d like to introduce a local aspect.
I’m asking with a particular interest, as Vermont’s demographics are graying, and this will pose a problem for public schools, the labor force, and the tax base. Our childbirth rate is second-lowest in the US. This demographic challenge is also a more widespread, global issue, as many nations (Japan, Canada, Finland, Italy, etc) are experiencing a similar problem: declining numbers of young people, growing numbers of seniors.*
What would it take for young people to move to Vermont?**
To begin with, the situation. Vermont is a small state with a smaller population (about 600,000). It can be outrageously cold in winter for people who aren’t used to it (but summers are very sweet, and autumns splendid). The biggest city, Burlington, is the state’s youth magnet; otherwise, it’s a very rural state.
We have much to attract young people and families, starting with famous natural beauty. Vermont’s agriculture world appeals to those who want to get in touch with their food systems. This ties into our fierce environmental commitment, which can connect with a generation rising amidst concerns of global warming and sustainability. Our strong communities, including actual, for-real town meetings, can speak to those seeking strong social ties. Our colleges and universities attract 18-to-22-year-olds for studies. And we’re the second-healthiest state in the US, according to one study.
What can we do to make those virtues work? What can we change? Here are some ideas I’ve found through research:
- Improving public transportation. Public transportation is too weak. It’s very good in the immediate Burlington area, but falls off in the rest of the state, requiring cars for everyone… a major disincentive to increasingly car-less Millenials. We could grow our bus lines.
- Building more housing. It’s famously hard to find rental properties in Vermont.
- Make social opportunities for people under 50. For example, this group connects young workers in the city of Rutland.
- Creating jobs and businesses. Vermont can do a better job of incubating startups and support young entrepreneurs. The renewable energy sector is one which could grow and be very consistent with Vermont values.
- Creating better jobs. Some young people leave the state to make more money.
- Aggressively improve our technology. We’re doing poorly at attracting generations reared on the digital world when our broadband is unimpressive (better than it was!) and cell phone coverage spotty. Our social media usage is low. Vermont often appears as an anti-technological place, which appeals only to a small number of people. If we reverse that view and make our technology base viable, we can attract folks who rely on tech. Indeed, Vermont could be a great telecommuting base, if our infrastructure supports it. (One politician agrees)
- Retool public education for 21st-century work. I hear complaints that Vermonters lack the skills necessary for modern jobs (see point 1 here for example).
- Improve support for public higher education. Vermont contributes far less to public colleges and universities than most other states, and college graduates sometimes struggle under debt loads. What if we increased tuition support, or forgave loans for graduates who remain in state?
Here’s a good audio discussion with young Vermonters, offering a wide range of views.
This is a huge challenge for Vermont, especially as it connects with so many aspects of our culture and personal lives. The urgency of it is one reason I’m running for the local school board, to be honest.
What do you think?
*There’s nothing wrong with large numbers of seniors per se. Seniors are awesome. It’s when coupled with shrinking younger populations that issues arise.
Issues such as: supplying a workforce to carry out the economy’s functions, when older folks retire; having that workforce pay income taxes to feed the state’s budget; declining population overall; etc.
**I think there exists an opposed political stance, which is that Vermont should not attract and retain young people. It may be implicit only, or just very quiet, but perhaps a number of Vermonters view the state as better off without Millenials. Maybe they want the state to be a kind of intentional community for retirees. I’d love to hear more from them, if that’s an actual argument.
(thanks to Nancy White for discussing this)