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Demographics

03/15/07 12:00AM By
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(LABUN JORDAN) A few months ago, my old college roommate called from Virginia. "I've found a young person for you," she said, "She just applied for an internship in Montpelier and we get along great. I'm sure you'll be friends."

This was the same woman who never let me borrow her clothes in college. Yet she apparently felt compelled to lend me her friend for a year to help fill our widely reported young person shortage. That call was when I began to worry about Vermont's reputation.

The population of people over sixty-five is expected to double in the next twenty-five years, while the rest of the over-eighteen population remains roughly the same. The number of school age children is decreasing. These trends make it difficult for some people to see Vermont as a youthful place.

Still, you don't need more than fifty young people to have a decent sized party and a mere dozen will make a large dinner gathering. So we can't blame just the statistics for telling the story of a youth-less Vermont. In fact, the most worrying trend is how our gray-haired character has become an unspoken assumption in daily conversations.

For example, when we want to emphasize that a major disaster, like climate change, is impending, we say that it will happen in our children's lifetime - which is fine, except that nine times out of ten the speaker invoking this sinister timeframe is older than my parents. When Howard Dean took the national stage, he had the good sense to focus on the idea that both the big problems, and the big solutions, lay with "today's" generation. But this more inclusive wording has yet to become the standard here.

Here's another example. Sitting in a meeting a few weeks ago, I looked to someone across the table and said "I wonder what a young person thinks about this. Could you share your opinion?"

I don't think I've ever seen one fifty-year old turn to another in a meeting and say "I wonder what a middle-aged person thinks about this - could you share your opinion?" My question implied that the number of young people has shrunk so drastically that a sample size of one is an acceptable representation.

The widespread belief in our own decrepitude is particularly troubling because Vermont actually has many components of a great youth culture. Our small size creates a perfect platform for young people to connect with resources and launch new projects, whether it's a performance, a business or even a campaign for elected office. In every town we have examples of young people taking advantage of these opportunities. For recreation, you're never far from great outdoor spots. Places like Colorado have become magnets for young people based almost entirely on this virtue. We have more colleges per capita than any other state. And our unique communities allow young people to find a good fit with the personality of a town.

A strong youth culture doesn't depend only on demographics. We have plenty of other elements in our favor. But if Vermont is going to be a place where young people feel at home, I think we need to start telling our story in a whole new way.

Helen Labun Jordan works at the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
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