Vermont’s strong sense of community, progressive ideas, lifestyle and natural beauty appeals to emerging adults.
But is that enough to keep our young? In this final chapter focusing on the Millennial Generation, VPR’s Fran Stoddard looks at what engages this group, keeps them in Vermont or draws them back the state.
(Stoddard) We know that many of Vermont’s young, including the best and brightest, leave the state for college, adventure and experience elsewhere.
Because Vermont has a solid reputation as good place to raise a family in an insecure world, we also know, as Commerce Secretary Laurence Miller recently said, "when it’s time to mate and breed, they’ll be back."
Should we think about getting them back sooner. Or making Vermont a more inviting place to stay?
Twenty-four-year-old roommates Anna Hill and Kaitlin Francis want to live here, and feel that’s true for most of their friends from hometowns in Chittenden and Rutland counties.
(Hill) "They say they want to come back and settle down here and raise their family here.
(Francis) "The only people I know that aren’t coming back and are fed up with the place are doing so because they have moved to Florida or Arizona to Texas or California …they just couldn’t do the winter. Not because they didn’t like the small town or because they didn’t like everyone knowing you or knowing your story. Yeah, it’s strictly a climate thing." (Laughter).
(Stoddard) Yes, it’s cold in the winter. It’s not easy starting out in Vermont. Housing is expensive, jobs are limited in scope, and, yes, it’s cold in the winter. These are some major factors that have led to the exodus of our young adults. But there are many young people who are determined to stay and many who want to return to the state they grew up in, or learned to love, during college years. Community and family connections are key for Anna and Kaitlin.
(Hill) "You can go all over the world but it’s something about being able to walk down the street and see someone you know and know that even though you aren’t making a lot of money that there’s people there that will back you up. To me, that’s absolutely huge."
(Francis) "Yeah it’s a quality of life factor. You have unbelievable scenic beauty. And everybody does care about their neighbor, everybody does want to make a difference."
(Stoddard) Sara Robinson, who grew up in Brattleboro and is now a City Council member in Winooski, notes how community involvement has taken on new forms for this generation.
(Robinson) "When I think about the response to Irene, I think of another Winooksi resident, Sara Waterman, that spearheaded the VT Response website. So I think the community might look quite different for our generation; it might not be the boards, the commissions, not even be tangible. It might be online or other ways that folks plug into their communities, might look differently and what’s exciting about Vermont is we are able to test out those different ideas for what community looks like and understand what really works on a local level."
(Stoddard) This broader sense of community, created by the Internet, is second nature to Millennials and is another important stimulus to improving Vermont’s technology infrastructure. Business consultant Steve Shepard:
(Shepard) "The lack of technology is a serious, serious issue, because lack of technology means that this is an irrelevant place to live. If I can’t get connected here, I’m going to go somewhere where I can get connected because connectivity is part of my life. It’s air. And if I don’t have that, I can’t live. So we need to accelerate that. I know there are things going on around the state, but we have to do it faster, we need to do it more effectively with an absolute focus on the fact that this is not just about getting people access to the internet, but about getting people access to their own futures. And if we don’t do that, we are limiting our access to a cohort who are truly going to change the world."
(Stoddard) Young Vermonters, like most others of their generation, are very close to their parents. Some think they are too attached. In this age of overprotection and helicopter parents, social worker Keith Gallager worries that some young people have don’t have the skills to make it on their own.
(Gallager) "Parents need to be taught again to make kids suffer. The desire to keep them safe, in some ways keep them young. And so it’s really hard to imagine yourself being that capable."
(Stoddard) For some, the transition to adulthood may be bumpy, but business consultant Steve Shepard feels most are adapting to the idea that life will not be simple or easy. And he sees a group that will do remarkable things.
(Shepard) "I’m very positive about the future of this generation. Everything that I see from interviews that I do, the companies that are hiring them in large numbers – the folks that are doing the hiring and doing the observing can’t say enough good about them. Are there parts of the generation that drive them crazy? Absolutely. However we’re seeing the largest numbers of people joining the Peace Corps in over 60 years. Because they want to be a part of something that makes a difference."
(Stoddard) Even though 25-year-old Johnny Powell juggles multiple jobs, isn’t making much money, and hates the cold, he claims he’ll never leave Vermont and notes a changing value system among his peers.
(Powell) "It’s absolutely OK not to make as much money. One thing we wish, whether we talk about it or not, is to move away from a society focused on making money. People my generation are more interested in experience, doing good and making things better than they are in making money."
(Stoddard) Colin Robinson of Brattleboro and Winooski agrees.
(Robinson) "I think more and more young Vermonters are looking for ways to give back, find ways get involved, find ways to shape our communities in ways that reflect our values, our desires and ultimately the communities that we are but also the communities we still can become."
(Stoddard) They also feel very much a part of a larger, global community. Again, Steve Shepard.
(Shepard) "This is one of the things that makes me smile all day long when I think about this generation. This is the first generation in the world that I have seen that truly doesn’t see racial differences, they don’t see ethnic differences. Unlike other generations that were driven to see the difference between two groups of people, they find them selves more and more looking for similarities. They look for ways to bridge gaps, not create gaps. And it results in some amazing changes in the way people do things."
(Stoddard) Shepard also follows this trend to a larger stage with the blossoming of the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement.
(Shepard) "In the final analysis…when you look at this group of people, this generation is extremely community minded, believes in the future and believes that together they can make something important to happen, etc. Frankly, I think of a better outcome."
(Stoddard) Sara Robinson demonstrates that mindset. She was elected to the Winooski City Council two years ago when she was 25 to engage more young people and young families in this diverse and dynamic town.
(Sara Robinson) "Sure, could we move somewhere else and make more money or live in a bigger house or any of that? But are those the things that make life more exciting and meaningful? No. The sense of community, the beautiful natural environment here in Vermont, and roots here are things that have kept us here.
(Stoddard) Sara’s husband, Colin:
(Colin Robinson) What draws you to Vermont, what keeps you in Vermont, what you love about Vermont is not monolithic. It’s something that is as diverse and varied as we are."
(Sara Robinson) "And I think that’s one of the things that drew us to Winooski, in particular. It has that small town ethic that we both grew up with in southern Vermont, but as at the same time it is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse communities in Vermont. Where else can you walk up Main Street and walk into Sally’s flower shop and talk to Sally who taught generations of kids at the Winooski schools and now owns a flower shop in town. And go next door to the Hallal market, and go down the street to the Asian market. And it’s a pretty incredible place. And it’s amazing how those values and those ethics that really inform small Vermont communities remain in a place like a place like Winooski even as it has changed so radically."
(Stoddard) This generation is wants to be a part of Vermont’s progressive ideals and traditional values. Their energy, openness to innovation and entrepreneurial endeavors is critical to the state’s success.
Ultimately, Colin Robinson and so many others want to find ways to make a contribution.
(Colin Robinson) "Vermont, because of our scale, because of our size, we have rich traditions like Town meeting, that works because of our commitment to community. It’s the same scale and size that means we can be an incubator for new ideas; and I think that’s what attracts people to VT. And our friends who we grew up with who are not in VT now, but who want to come back. They want to be here and they see themselves here and they see VT as a community and state they want to invest in and they want to some home to. And I think they will come back; they’re just away for a while to see what they can do.
(Stoddard) Vermont can reach out to this group in many ways, and from all I heard, it would serve us well to do so. They are coming up in a troubled world and one of the worst economic eras of a lifetime, but they are game and have youthful, and according to some, generational optimism and energy on their side. We could make it ours. Here’s some of how they suggest Vermont can make it happen.
Schools & college can continue efforts in workplace engagement, internships and applied learning with an emphasis on Vermont businesses as opposed to generic skills, offer more job fairs and financial education, particularly around credit and debt.
The legislature and state government can help with job creation, training grants, technology infrastructure, college tuition support, incubator support and affordable housing.
Family is deeply important to this generation. Families can continue to give support to their own and reach out to those that don’t have family to fall back on; help them all rise to their promising potential.
Our communities can ask for their involvement. The way Vermont responded Tropical Storm Irene has jazzed our young and reminded them that Vermont does have the community spirit they crave.
To keep them from slipping out Vermont’s grasp, all they need is to be included and given a voice.
Support for The Generation Gap series is provided by VPR’s Journalism Fund.