Young Vermonters

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(HOST) Candidates in Vermont’s fall elections have targeted many issues as key policy areas – including how to retain more young Vermonters. Commentator Helen Labun Jordan has mixed feelings about this particular campaign issue.

(LABUN JORDAN) It’s become conventional wisdom that Vermont needs more young Vermonters. People from every political viewpoint seem to agree and even the New York Times has reported on this fact. And yet, whenever I hear the latest call to bring in more young people, I’m left without knowing the specific purpose of the plan. I’m waiting to hear more about what benefits, exactly, I should expect from expanding this demographic.

Youth is a fuzzy thing to begin with. We use vague phrases like “youthful spirit”, “young at heart” or that we’re “only as old as we feel”. For the longest time I avoided the fuzzyness by relying on the old slogan “Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty” to make a clear dividing line between who’s young and who’s not. That model served me well until recently, when I took a survey that sorted me into the twenty-six to thirty-five year old category. I’m used to a comfortable twenty to twenty-nine year old grouping. To be lumped in with people over thirty was a shock.

It’s true that I’ve already accepted some aspects of leaving youth behind: I can’t eat wild apples without getting an upset stomach, I’ve developed a nagging sense of mortality when I play rugby, I spend a lot more time thinking about the best system for dusting end tables. It took a while to embrace these changes, but I managed it. Still, this election season, marginally young people like me face an unprecedented challenge: we’re losing our foothold as part of Vermont’s most desirable demographic. We’re a few short years away from dropping out of the political limelight. And maybe that’s the biggest problem with young Vermonters these days; we’re all getting older.

Perhaps my advancing years are making me overly reflective, but I have to stop and ask: what’s so great about young people anyway? Is it basic community diversity we’re after? Are they adding to a creative business culture? Maybe they’re keeping the state current with technology trends or the latest in popular music? Perhaps it’s producing children for the school system? Or maybe there’s something inherently better about people born after Ronald Reagan entered presidential politics. It’s not that I doubt the importance of twenty-somethings, but I find it hard to believe that anyone’s value to this state is going to decrease the older they get.

Policy by age bracket will always be limited, because age itself is a limited indicator for what individuals contribute to life in Vermont. The question we face isn’t just how to secure more young Vermonters; it’s what specific things does the state lack now that we want these young people to provide. Probably some of those needs can’t be met with our current demographics. At the same time, I’m willing to bet that many of the goals we’re after are ones we can all work towards – even people who are over thirty. Shifting towards a dialogue that isn’t based so much on age would be a major step forward not only for Vermont, but also for our collective ability to grow old gracefully.

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

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