Matt Harrington: Attracting millennials to Southern Vermont

How do we attract more young people to our area? It's a question I get asked a lot.

This has been a debate or rather a head-scratcher, chin-rubbing question that has taken precedence at our economic meetings and tourism summits for the last decade. We've really taken a hard look at it recently as the numbers look to be getting worse for young professionals and families moving to our end of the state.

And yet, I'm a millennial (born approximately 1980-2001) here. I have friends and coworkers who are millennials here. I find those millennial friends to be some of the smartest, most intriguing, genuine people I have ever met. What brought them here? Why am I here?

Here is what I believe to be true:

In southern Vermont and specifically the Shires of Vermont you can innovate at the verge. This would be my pitch to why other millennials should move here!

1). Innovation at the Verge - this concept was a phrase coined years ago by futurist Joel Barker. Barker believed in paradigm shifts. He said paradigms are a system of rules and boundaries that create a common set of behaviors in order to be successful in that system. A paradigm shift is a moving away from those set boundaries and behaviors. We see this with revolutions, renaissances and revivals. We "buck" the system, fighting against "old paradigms" as we shift to a "new paradigm."

I think we are set to see a major paradigm shift within this country. Without getting too political - what is happening now with the women's movement, firearms and high school walk outs, marijuana, chaotic weather patterns, and general trust of government - Vermont is poised to inherit many of those nomadic millennials looking for a simpler, more-authentic way of life, not unlike the Back To The Land Movement in the 1960s.

More importantly Barker argued that innovation doesn't happen where urban life is most dense, but on the fringe where competition is least. Innovation occurs not at the center where the competition is the highest; it occurs at the edges of the ecosystem where the competition is the lowest. Vermont is not urban; it is at the fringe, where innovation can happen the most.

I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. But here has been my argument of why millennials should move to places like Bennington or Manchester, Vermont (the edges of urban ecosystems): You can be whatever you want to be. You can be a designer, a musician, a volunteer, a select board member with little friction. Vermont is actually quite conducive to the "gig" economy model, which encourages people to have multiple jobs and interests. Vermont has a long history of its residents holding many jobs to have a good quality of life. Millennials are natural to this way of life.

This reminds me of a young professional living in the area; I once asked her why she moved here. She replied, "because my job allows me to do so much more in my industry than my peers." I asked her how is that so? "Because the small firm needs a well-balanced, fully talented person juggling the many parts of our industry and clients. My other friends in the same profession, but living in the city, don't get to do as much as me because there is a person for every task in the city. They have one-dimensional jobs. I feel that I'm getting the most well-rounded career by living here. Not to mention I can also do the other things I love - volunteering, helping the community, and building the community I want. It also helps that I have a livable lifestyle here!"

Bingo! That's it.

For me, I'm a young 32-year old who is executive director of a regional chamber of commerce. That is awesome. I am humbled and honored to be in such a position, with the ability to influence and change as much as I can. I'm not sure I would have this opportunity elsewhere.

And that's what millennials want - the ability to influence and change. We have plenty of openings for that here where the competition isn't as fierce and opportunities to be influential are vast and easily attainable.

2.) Mutualism - The Shires of Vermont and our constant need to work together is what drives our mutualism. Mutualism is a powerful tool that I think the millennials will be attracted to. Mutualism is the idea of two or more elements getting together based on their differences and creating a partnership and solving problems that are good for both elements.

We think of the event scene, the music scene, the food scene, the economic scene in the area and I have seen multigenerational mutualism. The problems and challenges are far too big for the "old guard" or the "new guard" to handle alone. We have to work together in a win-win-win partnership in order for the correct change and growth in the area to take place.

Recently we hosted the 2nd Annual Wings and Winter Homebrew Festival, which saw over 350 people from all backgrounds and ages enjoy craft home-made brew, music, wings and community. At one point I looked out over the crowd and I remarked to our staff and producers, "this is multigenerational! This is diversity. I know only a handful of people here - this is awesome!" Come to find out, after looking at the data, only 20 percent of the ticket holders were actually from Bennington, the rest were from around the country!

On Monday we hosted Lyft from California to open a dialogue of transportation in southern Vermont. Although this was co-hosted with the young professional group we saw a mixture of generations interested in this topic with many people from all ages showing up for the discussion. One older gentleman commented, "This is innovation; this is what we should have been talking about 10 years ago; thankfully this new generation is having this conversation!"

So perhaps, this answers some of the question of how to get millennials here. Or perhaps, this is a letter to millennials requesting their attention, "We're Southern Vermont and we are now accepting bright, talented, dedicated, authentic, excited young professionals to influence and change our region and the world. No need to apply, our borders are open and our communities are in need of your fresh ideas and energy."

Always Onward.

Matt Harrington is executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.


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