Should I Stay or Should I Go? Vermont Youths Ponder their Future

by Sarah Davin

When I came back to Vermont after graduating from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and an unsuccessful summer trying to find a job in Boston, I felt ashamed, as if I had failed. Then, in that odd Vermont way, I got lucky. I responded to a “volunteers needed” advertisement in The Bridge, and showed up like a foundling on their doorstep. Since then, I have tried my best to absorb everything I can from the staff’s experience of journalism and their dedication to serving the community. Despite all the challenges of being here, it has also inspired me to add a new, tentative word to my vocabulary: “stay.”

But for many young people in Vermont, “stay,” is not in their vocabulary. When I hear speculations about how to counter youth flight, there is one group of voices missing: ours. Lately, there have been a few schemes to bring young people in from out of state. Governor Phil Scott signed S.94, a bill to promote remote work in Vermont, but most young people don’t have the prestige with their employers to be eligible for becoming a remote worker. The “Stay to Stay” program is another attempt to bring more new young people in to the state. While showing off Vermont’s assets is always helpful, it doesn’t address the problem of current young Vermonters not being able to stay.

The most frustrating piece of this discourse is the denial that there is a problem at all. In 2015, then Governor Peter Shumlin told Vermont Public Radio, “We’ve got the lowest unemployment rate this side of the Mississippi. Employer after employer will tell you, ‘Find us more workers.’” This may be the case, but a low unemployment rate doesn’t necessarily indicate a high success rate of finding jobs. It can also indicate a lack of opportunities of the type that young people want to pursue.

Adam Blachly, 19, a student at Middlebury College, was born in Barre and has lived in Vermont his entire life. When asked about the challenges of being an independent, young person in Vermont, Adam indicated that there were both pros and cons, saying, “I think it is easier, as a young adult, to be independent in more urban settings because there are more people your age and many more opportunities—not just jobs, but sports, clubs, groups, and so on. On the other hand, if you really strive for independence and social isolation, Vermont is perfect because it gives you the chance to live on your own and grow your own food and experience the outdoors.” Asked if he planned to stay in Vermont after graduation, he answered, “For college, yes. The opportunities are available for me at Middlebury. Beyond that, there are very few. I plan to move out of state when I graduate.”

Amanda Swift, 24, was also born and raised in Central Vermont. She recently graduated from a six-year pharmaceutical college in Albany, New York. Since then, she has returned to Central Vermont. Amanda highlighted financial challenges as the biggest threat to a young person’s independence here.

“There are a lot of challenging aspects of being a young person in Vermont, as well as anywhere in the United States right now. Finances are likely the most challenging, especially for college-educated individuals. We are graduating with an inordinate amount of loans, ranging anywhere from several thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands. It’s a bit difficult to get your footing when paying almost twice the amount of interest as someone would on a home mortgage,” She continued, “In addition, Vermont lacks variety in its job market compared to other areas of the country. Depending on your major or degree in college, it simple may not be feasible to come back to the area and live independently.”

One of the most difficult parts emotionally about living in Vermont as a young person is the social isolation. As an increasing number of young people leave the state, our social presence naturally dwindles. When asked if young people had a culture left in Vermont she responded, “Yes and no. I think that there will be a larger need for younger people to stay in the coming years, as there continues to be a mass exodus out of the area. As a young person in the area now, I don’t really feel like I have a place however. Culturally, Central Vermont has a much older population than Burlington, for example. So it’s definitely harder to fit in based on that aspect alone.”

Larissa Kehne, 25, currently lives in Washington DC. Born in New Hampshire, her family was attracted to Washington County by the good school districts. Currently, Larissa has no plans to return to Vermont. Larissa cited a lack of transit, internet and phone connectivity, and insane real estate prices as a few of the hurdles young Vermonters face. She also mentioned the important role diversity plays in attracting youth, as some leave simply to experience new kinds of people.

This being said, Larissa did not characterize Vermont as being void of opportunity. “Opportunity to influence and produce tangible change is a huge deciding factor for my age cohort. Vermont communities, though often isolated, are incredibly nuclear. This fosters local political engagement and intimacy that other states lack in general. The back-to-the-land movement and all of its revivals have bred a disappearing attitude of self-sufficiency. If you can support yourself on a Vermont salary, you can subsist. As an independent thinker, I think that’s pretty fantastic.”

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