Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Is New England Dying?

The political leadership in my state has lately embarked on another lame campaign to try to persuade young people, especially recent college graduates, not to leave at the first opportunity. Several of our neighbors have started their own initiatives along these lines, or at least have openly expressed similar concerns about their own rotten demographics, and the ongoing exodus of the best of their young people. Good luck with that. In addition to those referenced in the article above, here are some pertinent numbers: Maine and Rhode Island were both estimated to have declined in absolute population in the year 2009, which given the current low death rate, is generally regarded by demographers as indicative or forboding of catastrophe; the under-18 population during the decade of the 2000s declined in every New England (indeed every northeastern) state, led by Vermont (14% decline), Maine (10%), Rhode Island (9%) and New Hampshire (7%--this is even with my own children figured); Vermont has had the lowest birth rate (around 1.6-1.7 per woman) of any state in the country for most of the last decade, with the rest of the New England states making up most of those right behind it, usually around 1.7-1.8, meaning that barring much more substantial migration/immigration into these states than has already occurred the child population will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. The largest age cohort in all of these places in the recent census was that in the 45-54 range, and the 55-64 range is still the second largest. Even to bring in anecdotal evidence, until about 2 years ago, when I was 39, and had been on staff for 12 years, I was still the 3rd youngest person out of about 20 in my department at work, which included more people over 70 than under 40. This age distribution seems to be pretty typical throughout the organization, with the exception of the excessive number of septuagenarians. My particular city, which has no college or youth-oriented cultural scene to speak of at all and is dominated by sober professionals, seems to suffer especially from a dearth of people between the ages of 23 and 35. Though while this situation is not quite so extreme everywhere, and there are certain towns that appear to be attractive to decent numbers of relatively energetic, if not world-changingly innovative young people (Brattleboro; Portsmouth; Burlington (VT)), most are even worse off than the place I live, which at least has a few possibilities for achieving a modestly prosperous career.

It could be objected, of course, that New England, especially the New England in which the laconic, industrious and resourceful character of the Yankee is the predominate figure, has been pronounced to be dying before, that indeed the sense of imminent death is a permanent feature of the local zeitgeist. The literature has certainly inclined in this direction. Hawthorne's gloomy depictions of a hidebound, mirthless society hounded by doom on all sides were set in the period when Europeans had scarcely been settled in the region for fifty years, in some instances less than 20, come to mind. Though Hawthorne was writing at a distance of two centuries, such specimens of literature as do survive the early colonial era as Michael Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom and Jonathan Edwards's epic sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God reinforce the idea that this was not the most optimistic, life loving and earthly future directed people, though in reality of course they were to some extent. Immigrants poured into Massachusetts and diffused all over the region throughout this era, while the birth rate was around 6-9 children per women over a period of several generations, which is one of the highest credible numbers found anywhere in history. Moving on to the post-Civil War Go-West-Young-Man era, in concert with the ascension of New York to melting pot colossus and one of the handful of most important cities in the world, New England comes to stand in symbolically as a graveyard for the living dead for literary types once again. Does American literature contain a more grim community and landscape than the town, presumably in western Massachusetts, in which Ethan Frome is set? Eugene O'Neill milked these themes to good effect throughout his illustrious career; the stunted sons hopelessly tilling the rocky soil of their overbearing father's farm in Desire Under the Elms and the beautiful but faded and oppressive summer home in Long Day's Journey Into Night being two notable instances of this. In this era immigrants from Ireland and Italy and French Canada streamed into the region in large numbers and the population consistently grew from 10-20% every decade. In the recent (Post World War II) era the New England = death motif in literature and movies has hardly abated, though the sense where it appears has become more of nostalgia for some more refined ideal that possibly existed in the past and to which the vulgarity of modern existence will not permit ascendance. A Separate Peace, the 'haunting' nostalgia films Summer of '42 and its underappreciated sequel Class of '44, even by my reading more highbrow efforts like the poems of Robert Lowell partake heavily of this quality. In my later teens and early 20s when I was living outside the region and confused about where I should tell people where I was from, when I would say Maine/New England the response of my interlocuter would frequently be to express the sense he or (rarely) she had that the region was dead, that they had felt the deadness viscerally on some visit or even collegiate stint there, implying then of course that the future dynamism of the country--this was before everybody had adopted the globalist mindset--both cultural and economic, would come from elsewhere, Texas and California and the southwest and west generally being considered the favorites for this leading role at that time. People are comfortable with the idea.

At bottom of course all of this concern is about the increasing desperation to grow the tax base--especially via the much vaunted entrepreneurship/innovation that a properly educated young workforce is supposed to spawn if congregated in substantial enough numbers--bring consumers into the economy who need to buy houses and furniture and baby clothes and so on, and to subsidize, or at least ease the burden that the needs of the increasingly aging population are threatening to overwhelm the various states with. Anybody who reads the papers knows that all hope for maintaining the living standards that North Americans have become accustomed to is invested in attracting entrepreneurship and innovation to one's community, with the holy grail being any kind of industry that will produce thousands or at this point even a few dozens of middle class jobs. Trends and statistics would seem to indicate that in the current situation (much-maligned) theater graduates have about as good a chance of making a living in their chosen fields as the would be entrepreneur does of seeing his business succeed to the point of providing him with a middle class income for himself over a period of several years, let alone one that will come to the economic rescue of entire regions, yet unlike in almost any other field with a similar rate of professional failure (most estimates seem to agree between 80-90% of new businesses), the leadership of society continually calls for more people, smarter people, harder working people to direct their energies towards innovative and imaginative business creation--as the only possible solution to all our problems.

With regard to myself, after finishing high school I too left the region for about 8-9 years, and returned when I was 27. Looking back, I should have made a greater effort to spend another couple of years overseas; even though I was out of money and was not having much luck getting jobs, it's something I should have forced myself to do, as it might have had the effect of shaking me out of my lethargy and enabled me to join one of the energetic and interesting segments of society. There was certainly no reason to rush back and grasp hold of a lowly position in the regular workforce that could not have been put off for a few more years. Anyway I came to New Hampshire for romance--my wife is from here--and because at the time I was not in an immediate position to find any better arrangement in the US. Plus I did retain a general affection for the area as I had lived in Maine, and entertained some idea at the time, as I have noted before, of eventually settling there. I was still technically one of these young graduates that are always supposedly so much in demand, though not an entrepreneur, and without any verifiable job skills. Still, I thought must be intelligent enough to eventually figure out the game of the professions, or make a positive impression on somebody who would be in a position to "set me up" somehow (this is one of the drawbacks of reading too many novels--characters in them are always getting "set up" by people they have made an impression on). Also it must be remembered that I was still expecting at the time to finish writing my book within a couple of years, and for the book to be both good and recognized as such. I suppose I ought to be embarrassed to have actually ever thought this now, and to offer a different and more reasonable explanation for what I expected to happen with my life, but I don't see what it matters. Of such conventional careers as might have been realistically open to me, I still cannot think of any that I have any great desire to have now.

But I have gotten a little off track. The object was to examine what a state like New Hampshire offers to an enterprising young person. My answer, even though I personally seem to have stagnated in many ways, is still, I think, quite a lot. Of course there are a lot of careers that it would be impossible to pursue here to any great height, or even at all, but there is enough proven substantial brainpower deposited around the state to demonstrate that one is not dooming oneself to a life devoid of meaningful accomplishment in many fields by staying here. The overall quality of life is very high, especially once you get past your early thirties--every time I go to visit any of my other old haunts in the Mid-Atlantic I am reminded how many extra years of life I have managed to preserve by not having to spend several hours in traffic jams every day--and largely accessible. The last time I checked the statistics, which was within the last 5 years, New Hampshire had the lowest income inequality of any state in the country. While this might sound distasteful to super-achievers, this is mostly due I think to the comparatively low numbers of absolute wastrels in the state compared to almost everywhere else. There is certainly a healthy population of rich people, though evidently they are not quite as rich as rich people are in other states, or else they leave the state, which is not hard to do, to indulge in any extreme high-end consumption; for I am not aware of any restaurants or stores or leisure activities anywhere in New Hampshire, or the southern half of Vermont for that matter, that it would be completely impossible for me to contemplate going to even once due to their expense (I'm sure some probably exist, but I do not as yet know about them). The unemployment rate is much lower than elsewhere in the country--officially 5%, maybe double that in reality. That number is deceptive though, I think, because a lot of people do leave the state because the job situation is limited, and the economy being on such a small scale it is easy to perceive when that is the case. If you live in a town of 15,000 people surrounded by woods and the largest employer in it closes down, it doesn't require the acumen of John Kenneth Galbreath to see that waiting around for things to pick up again is probably not a smart idea, as might be the case in a place like California or Florida. There is a notable influx of professional people who come back in their mid-30s after having failed to make it really big/burned out on the super-competitive lifestyle in Boston and New York, especially if they have children. One of my children's friends' father spent his youth trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood (he is an energetic and active Republican in the comminty now). They still want to impress upon each other that they played and achieved no small success in the game of life though.

The population of New Hampshire it should be noted did increase by 6% during the last decade even though the child population declined substantially. We seem to be becoming a popular retirement/late career destination for baby boomers fleeing the oppressive taxes, and, some assert, the diversity that have overwhelmed their native haunts to the south. There is also a libertarian movement called the Free State Project whose goal is to get libertarians to settle in the state in large enough numbers to be able to begin getting elected to office, which has apparently attracted a few people...

This essay is garbage and it is incomplete but it has been 8 days, my kid won't go to sleep and I have to get ready for an appointment, so I am letting it go now.

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