Watts: Youth Flight

May 18, 2016

I’ve been thinking about the narratives focused on what it takes to keep our young people in Vermont. Consider the plans of three young graduates this spring.

Madeline is a big-hearted bike-fiend, who volunteers at the Vermont respite house, working with young adults with disabilities. After graduation, she’s headed to her parents’ home in Naples, Florida for a few months before setting off to travel around the world.

Rachel, who grew up in a family of eight in Rutland, is an avid reader with an eye for news and a talent for turning a phrase. She’s moving to Philadelphia to experience big city living.

And Brad, who is from South Burlington, has a passion for soccer and youth leagues. In May he heads to Manchester, England to see a “football” culture up front and personal.

So concerns about young people leaving Vermont is a story that’s repeated itself many times in the last 150 years. The so-called “youth flight,” or “youth exodus” is often framed in terms of jobs and taxes.

As then Governor James Douglas said in 2006: “Our young people are leaving the state in droves, heading for other states that can offer them jobs that pay well and a reasonably priced place to live.” Yet evidence suggests a more complicated reality.

First, the concept of a “youth exodus” may be overstated. Young people are leaving the state, yes. But young people are also moving into Vermont. In a recent two-year period about the same number of those who left Vermont also moved here, according to an analysis by the Montpelier-based Public Assets Institute. Young people are a highly mobile group.

Secondly, why people leave Vermont and why they return is more complicated than jobs and taxes.

A team of Vermont researchers surveyed more than 3700 “leavers” and “returners.” For those leaving Vermont, finding work was only one of a number of factors. Others included a desire for greater cultural diversity and a desire to live in an urban setting.

And for those who came back - Vermont’s landscapes, sense of community and scale ranked at the top of the list. More than one-third said Vermont was a place they wanted to raise their children. Family, friends and recreational opportunities all ranked high.

So while jobs and taxes are important, so, too, is supporting those other essential characteristics of Vermont – characteristics that I hope someday will draw Madi, Rachel and Brad back to the green mountain state.