I haven’t been home in years. And when I say “home” I don’t mean Connecticut, for once, but the place my parents call home: the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Back during the days when I went regularly to visit family I always had the sense of driving west into the past. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe that deserted western end of I-84 leads to some version of our future instead.
The latest statewide apocalypse is shuffling slowly toward us, leaning on its walker. This time, it’s demographics that are going to get us, according to a new economic report from the University of Connecticut. “If the state does not change its demographic trajectory,” the report warns, “it faces a bleak future.” Translation: We’re about to be flooded with old people, and too many old people are bad for the economy. Services are stretched, the pool of workers shrinks, and the economy stagnates.
Out in northeastern Pennsylvania, they have this problem too — only about 30 years more advanced. The population is largely older, because anyone who had any sense when they were young left to find work and excitement somewhere else. Jobs have been scarce since the collapse of the coal industry 40 years ago. The percentage of people over age 65 in Luzerne County, Pa. is nearly 18 percent, higher than the national average of 13 percent and Hartford County’s 14.6 percent. We’re not at that point yet, but we could be getting there.
Hartford County isn’t Luzerne County in many important ways, and Hartford isn’t Wilkes-Barre, either. But there is something to this report — we have an aging population and what have been our core industries aren’t creating jobs like they did previously. It’s not just us, of course. The whole Northeast is aging. There are fewer high school graduates in New England now than there were a decade or two ago, and the number is expected to continue to decline. People here are having fewer children, or they’ve left for the boom towns of the south and southwest. There was a time when Connecticut was a good place for young families to relocate, as my parents did from Pennsylvania 30 years ago. Now those kinds of young families are more likely to look elsewhere.
This drift away from the old industrial Northeast is a big, long-term trend, but the solution that the UConn economists offer, targeted tax credits, seems like tossing pebbles into the tide in hopes of damming it. Tax credits are nice, but they don’t necessarily transform Connecticut into an attractive state for young people. They don’t make this place fun and interesting.
That’s one of the big problems, isn’t it? We clearly don’t have a lot of what young, smart professionals want. If you have a choice between a job in Boston or a job here, which would you take? How about San Diego? Portland? Raleigh? These are cosmopolitan places with lots going on: vibrant club, arts, and music scenes, plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities, functional mass transit, lively urban centers, and a regionwide commitment to improving quality of life. We don’t have a lot of that here. That’s the No. 1 complaint I hear about Connecticut from people who are on their way somewhere else: there’s nothing to do here.
It’s changed some over the years, of course. We’re slowly moving in the right direction. There are plenty of wonderful art and music events happening, if you know where to look. The Hartford-New Britain Busway, renamed the rather odd CTFastrak (doesn’t that sort of sound like a train?), broke ground this week despite the naysayers, and commuter rail isn’t far behind. The Farmington Valley has some of the best bike trails I’ve ever found, and people continue to try to make the region more bike-friendly. The usual things stand in the way: money, time, lack of regional cooperation, and the persistent belief from leaders and opinion-makers down to ordinary people that nothing will ever improve.
Tax credits may help spur job growth, and that’s always a plus. But we need to focus on more than just business if we want to create the kind of vibrant region where young people move to, instead of away from. The “education session” was typically neglectful of the arts, for example, and government seems happy to ignore culture in general. Transit and better urban design need to be priorities as well. The first challenge, and quite possibly the most difficult one, will be for us to accept the fact that things are going to change here. If we continue to meet any new idea with cynicism we’ll just grump our way into a permanent demographic and economic rut. We must take a chance on the kind of change we want to see.
The mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania are beautiful. Taxes are lower than here, and housing is cheaper. And yet, the jobs don’t come and young people continue to leave, just as my own parents left decades ago for a state that, at the time, seemed like it was going places. There’s something very American about packing up and looking for your fortune far away, in another part of the country. But here’s the thing — last year they moved back there.
People originally from Connecticut live all over the country now. I run into them everywhere. Someday I want them to hear a clear call from us that says, in no uncertain terms, that things are changing. We’re on the move again, there’s opportunity and culture and life here again, so come home, come home, come home.
Susan Bigelow, an award winning columnist, was the founder of CT Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.