Every politician in a rural state with an aging demographic wants to know The Answer to The Magic Question:
“How do we get young people to move here and stay here to start careers and families?”
I probably shouldn’t think this is funny, but for some reason I do. The situation itself is not funny, but the bizarre machinations around constructing arguments to lure 20-somethings to rather than away from Appalachia are a little bit amusing. Part of the problem looks like this: We say we want young, talented, intelligent, educated, passionate people to want to call West Virginia home.
But then we talk about the offer, and about the very people we want to attract, as if they are not wise enough to see what is written in flames about 50 feet tall.
True story, I had some dialogue with a public school employee in a neighboring county last week in which he disclosed he’s had 3 students talk about suicide as the school year winds down. This seems unusual, right……aren’t most kids thrilled for school to be out?
No. Not any more and not here. For an increasing number of children the end of school means three months of food insecurity and the lack of physical protection that comes from reporting to a public place every day. It means hunger, and fear of violence, and isolation. For many kids, it means exposure to serious drug abuse like methamphetamines and to its associated crime.
It means too much time on your hands and not enough of anything else.
This is but one aspect of our situation. We don’t want to lead with such misery for obvious reasons — Don’t smart ambitious young people want to be in hip urban centers with lots of good times and easy living? That’s what it looks like on TV anyway. The thing is, I don’t think these people are the ones we really want and need. So why are we trying to get them anyway? No offense Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl; you’re entertaining and all, but you are the last thing we need over here.
This ain’t no party.
I say we market what we have for real and get the most hard-core world-changers we can. No one needs self-absorbed “what’s in it for me” types right now. I’m not falling for the idea that these people are part of any solution.
This ain’t no disco.
We need that piece of the 20-something puzzle that wants more. They’ve already done the research and they know that PR efforts to market the great outdoors and low rent is a weak sales pitch. I’m betting we are on the edge of a different attraction…..the nation has suffered several years now of throwing off the costumes of wealth and easy money, sexy start-ups and Internet-driven marketing schemes. McMansions, gargantuan gas-guzzling vehicles, and extravagant parties are dwindling and even a source of embarrassment. We see more clearly what that all was, how false and how wasteful. No one wants to churn that back up, they want to build on what’s real.
This ain’t no foolin’ around.
I’m not sure what is more real than the opportunity to turn away from “all for me” and turn towards “all for the world.” Our world of Appalachia is in peril, and that is nothing new, but what may be new is the chance to harness global concern about our local issues to attract the right young people who will change the future of this state and consequently the world.
Life is short. There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos. These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates. They are health care specialists and teachers and professors. They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors. They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts. Despite popular belief, they are lawyers too. They are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
They know right from wrong, they know giving from taking, and yes, they are 20-somethings.
I don’t think they want a sales pitch or a hand out. I think they want us to get out of the way and allow their innovation, perspective, and talent to change the future of this place.
2018 Update: WordPress won’t let me embed this video anymore, but you can watch it and listen to The Talking Heads perform Life During Wartime on YouTube. Over 7 years later, it still hits home for me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVHNwBbkSj4