"There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age." -- Sophia Loren
Ah, wise words that could have been expressed by the everlasting Peter Pan, no less. According to the honored actress and timeless Italian beauty, the secret to unleashing abundant energy and endless joy in our lives is through the endeavor of dreaming up and taking inspired actions.
According to folks planning long-term economic development strategies in southern Vermont, however, getting old is becoming a serious issue. Windham County, you see, is a tad long in the tooth. Our median age is 44 years old; nearly a full decade older than our nation’s average of 36 years.
In fact, after seven years of research, the recently published SEVEDS/CEDS strategic report finds this very issue worthy of a great deal of focus. Acting as our region’s "playbook for engaging in a collaborative, region-wide transformation of the economy," it has concluded that our current and future population trends point to prolonged stagnation and a struggling economy.
Census data indicates that Windham County is aging faster than most communities in the US, which raises questions with analysts about this region’s ability to achieve long-term, sustainable development, as "the significant decrease in persons of prime workforce and childbearing age threatens the region’s future labor force availability.
The CEDS further implies that "low wages, rising cost of living, and limited job opportunities are creating a disconnect between southeastern Vermont’s perceived sense of economic security today and a future that looks anything but secured, especially for younger residents"... and "failure to address that disconnect will result in many (locals) continuing to search for economic opportunity elsewhere." In sum, we not only struggle to attract youth to relocate here, we also suffer from an out-migration of homegrown residents in the under-45 demographic.
From a standpoint of social, energetic and creative capital, therefore, our region strains to offer a depth of resources to the architects of emerging markets and innovative new business. As a result, two of the five objectives that guide the current SEVEDS strategy are: a) Increase the 25-44 age group from 23 percent to 28 percent of the region’s total population by 2017; and b) Create an entrepreneurial environment.
In this day and age, the authors of the report are well aware that in-demand skilled workers have tons of quality choices of where to live, and that our area must be ready to wow these potential "recruits," or risk losing them to a competing locale that will -- the big question is: How?
There is no silver bullet or secret formula. To meet the enterprising goal of increasing the 25-44 year old demographic by 5 percent in 2 years amid the rolling momentum of contrary population trends, however, is going to take a well orchestrated, highly energized, forward thinking effort.
Surveying the landscape of where YP’s are heading off to live and work, it’s easy to see that many are migrating to places where efforts to increase jobs, incomes and productivity are being done through innovation, efficiency, and conservation, while promoting use of renewable energy and clean technologies to help protect the environment and minimize impacts of climate change.
"Creating place is what ultimately attracts the talent," says Brittany Morris Sanders, vice president for Public Affairs with Downtown Denver Partnership, the group charged with guiding downtown development. "This generation, millennials, often pick where they live before they have a job. We also know that companies look for places that attract this type of talent." Thus, having a vibrant urban area surrounded by beautiful, walkable neighborhoods is a key part of the mix, as is car-free transit-oriented development, bikesharing, carsharing, coworking and the like.
That said, the outdated and convoluted system of political preference, tax incentives and subsidy programs that "traditional" economic development models have employed to lure firms, grow jobs and build facilities must make way for a whole new approach, as the days of "smokestack chasing" are becoming extinct and a more subtle grass-roots structure is looking to take hold.
Although there exists a suite of new innovative tools towns and cities are utilizing to lure talent and grow a more organic entrepreneurial scene, Brattleboroans ought to first address the issue of its own youth exodus and generation gap by identifying the most salient characteristics of the target market? Who are these young people that we’re trying to attract, and how de we relate?
GenX, the defiant youth of the 1970 and 80s (hello!), who were often stereotyped and ridiculed as disenfranchised materialistic slackers by our elders and the media, has come of age and grown up to be a fairly highly educated, active, successful, giving, balanced and happy cohort.
Professor Christine Henseler, chair of the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures at Union College, summarizes my peer group as "a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all."
Furthermore, GenY (or Millennial), has already been dubbed "The Next Great Generation." The Pew Research Center labeled it as "detached from institutions and networked with friends," while author David Burstein makes the claim in his book, "Fast Future", that they exhibit a "desire to make the world a better place combined with an understanding that doing so requires building new institutions while working inside and outside existing institutions."
The economist echoes these sentiments by offering that "Millennials in the United States reveal attitudes that are more supportive of social liberal policies and same-sex marriage relative to other demographics." Not only is this is a group openly embracing social diversity in race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation, a March 2013 PEW Research Poll concluded that 64 percent of Millennials favor legalizing the use of marijuana. So, as we actively "recruit" younger residents, let’s just remember that YP’s are motivated by taking inspired action while extolling the virtues of Burning Man’s popular "Gift Economy" -- Decommodification, Radical Inclusion, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy.
Jacob Alan Roberts is an artist and community volunteer. He can be reached for comment and discussion at firstname.lastname@example.org.