Clippings: County’s aging population isn’t all bad news

Some state and area officials look at the aging population of Vermont as an obstacle to economic development in Addison County — as the demographic of residents 70 and older is expected to double in the next 20 years, while the 20-49-year-old demographic drops by 11 percent — but in my experience, there is an alternative, more positive story hiding in the data.
For young people in the community, one valuable aspect of life in Addison County is the breadth of experience represented by older people in the community, many of who can be mentors and teachers.
In recent talks with local authorities on the subject, one factor that repeatedly comes up in regard to the migration of young people out of rural areas is education: Addison County high school students leave the area to go to college and many don’t return, on the one hand, and on the other, college students from out-of-state—while they love being here—don’t view the area as a venue for building a career post-college.
Michael Moser, of the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies, highlighted this problem when he told me in a recent interview that one of the best ways Vermont could approach its demographic woes would be to find ways to retain out-of-staters who come here for college.
As a Middlebury College student who will graduate this February, I fit Moser’s point precisely. I came here from Virginia, and like thousands of other college seniors in the state, I’m going to make a decision in the near future about where to start my post-college life. According to Moser, it would be in the state’s interest to keep us here.
A rough tally of undergraduates at eight of the state’s largest baccalaureate institutions numbers around 38,000; that’s about 6 percent of the state’s population. These are largely people in their early 20s with high future earning potential.
The good news is that there’s a lot the local community, and communities like it throughout the state, can do.
This fall will mark the end of my second full year living and working, in addition to learning, in Addison County. Like many of my friends, I was initially attracted to staying here last summer by the quality of life this place offers.
The reason I’m still here is that, in the course of branching out from the usual Middlebury College social circuit, I’ve been amazed at the number of fascinating, diverse mentors I’ve found in the community. Maybe it’s a small-town thing: everywhere I turn people are willing and able to teach, advise (and sometimes even pay) me in fields outside the scope of my formal education. The community has taught me as much as the college.
I can think of a dozen friends who, like me, have adopted Addison County as a temporary home, and would agree that opportunities to learn and grow in Middlebury are exceptional.
The mentor relationship is one way in which this area’s middle aged and elderly demographic can work in its favor. Many Addison County residents have backgrounds and experience that could be invaluable to young people looking for advice and direction as they join the working world. In networking and applying for jobs, what is often most interesting for people in my position is not having people ask how they can help me, but asking them, “What did you do when you were in my position? How did that shape your career choices; in hindsight, what might you do differently?”
This is obviously a two-way street: It’s easy for college students to spend four years in this area wearing blinders, oblivious to the opportunities surrounding them as they line up interviews in Boston or New York.
But in a time when the local movement — local art, local business, local food — gets so much attention in our media and culture, it seems a waste to ignore one of our community’s most important local assets: the people here and the sum of their experience and knowledge.
The most concrete example of local learning I have comes from last summer. On a scorching, muggy day in early July, I was bush hogging a pasture in Shoreham on a seriously vintage International Harvester when I ran out of diesel fuel. Turns out diesel engines aren’t self-priming, so I spent the next 6 or 7 hours disassembling and reassembling the tractor’s whole fuel line until a guy from a neighboring farm came over and spent his afternoon showing me how to get the tractor started. I learned a lot more unexpected life lessons from that encounter than I ever could from a step-by-step Internet “how to” article or a college class.
Quality of life is the reason many people choose to live in Addison County, and a big part of that quality can come from the willingness of more experienced members of the community to teach and advise younger people. It’s certainly why I’m still here.

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