At the Waves Hotel in Old Orchard Beach, managers are having
trouble finding staff for the busy summer months. Swarms of young workers arriving each May for
work in Maine’s southern coastal tourist industry are a thing of
the past. These days, it is hard to find
youth labor. Last summer, the Waves was
forced to fill 80% of its summer positions with young workers from overseas.
In Piscataquis and Washington Counties, elementary school
enrollments have fallen by over 20% since 1990; superintendents can see school
closings and even district consolidations on the horizon. Enrollment is down in Maine’s urban areas as well, as a
result, Portland stands to lose $1.9 million in state education
funds next year.
Almost a third of Aroostook County students in grades 6-12
believe they will need to leave the state in order to be successful. While residents worry about the future
vitality of their communities, leaving has become part of the youth culture:
more than 40% of 15-29 year olds left “The County” in the 1990s.
Statewide, youth seem to
value higher education, but education levels remain low, a puzzling
paradox. College-going rates are higher
than the national average, yet overall educational attainment is the lowest in
New England and in the bottom third of the nation.
What is happening
here? These are the consequences of a
declining youth population. Maine’s youth are disappearing,
and the implications are broad, significant, and mostly troubling. Data from the 2000 census have received
considerable attention in Maine. The news media, government officials,
educators, and business leaders, alike, have expressed alarm at the declining
numbers of youth in the state. They are
worried about the potential impact on education funding, our cultural heritage,
and the state economy at large.
This brief is an
investigation of these worries, in five parts.
Part I defines the youth population problem as the result of three
separate demographic trends: a falling birth rate, increasing out-migration,
and decreasing in-migration, and investigates the possible causes of these
trends. Parts II, III, and IV, focus on
the likely implications of a declining youth population on Maine’s labor force, public
education system, and culture. Part V
argues that Maine must craft a comprehensive
statewide response to the problem.
I A Declining Youth Population
Since 1980, Maine has sustained a loss
of 24.7% of youth aged 15-29, while the population aged 35-59 has grown by over
57% in the same time period. Overall, Maine’s population has been
growing very modestly for the past two decades.
The 1980s saw a relatively rapid growth rate of 9%; in the 1990s that
rate slowed to about 3.8%. Yet when we
take a look at the population figures by age, two divergent patterns emerge. Maine’s population of 15-29 year
olds has been declining rapidly, while the number of residents aged 35–59 has
Since 1980, while middle aged numbers grew by over 170,000 , Maine’s youth population has
fallen by 67,000 people.
In the past three decades Maine has lost fully a quarter of
its people in their early twenties.
The southern coastal counties, York, Cumberland, and Sagadahoc, contributed
more to the growth trend for the middle-aged and lost a smaller percentage of
their youth than the state at large.
Counties with poorer economic indicators, saw more youth population
decline and had less robust growth for the middle age cohort.
Maine’s rapid rise in the number of middle aged residents
is a simple matter of birth, migration, and aging. Along with the rest of the nation, Maine experienced a surge in
birth rates in the twenty years following WWII--the “baby-boom”. Adding to the resident baby-boom cohort, Maine enjoyed a large
in-migration of young “baby-boomers” from out-of-state, beginning in the mid
1970s and continuing through the 1980s.
In the 1970s alone, Franklin, Hancock, Lincoln, and Sagadahoc counties
saw a population increase of over 20%, all due to in-migration.
Baby-boomer in-migrants came from mostly urban regions on the east
coast, often brought children with them and were typically well educated, with
promising white-collar careers.
In the 1990s, a second, smaller wave of baby-boomers, then in their
thirties, continued to move to the southern coastal counties.
The recent surge in middle-aged residents in Maine is a direct result of the
high birth rates between roughly 1946 and 1964, the extraordinary in-migration
of baby-boomers to Maine, and the subsequent aging
of this cohort. What, then, accounts for
the increasing loss of young Mainers aged 18-29? The answer turns out to be nearly the reverse
of the baby-boomer’s story, described above.
Maine’s declining youth population is a
product of three trends: a falling birth rate, increasing out-migration of
youth, and decreasing in-migration of youth.
as the late 1970s saw the advent of the baby-boom’s enormous impact on Maine’s economy, education
system, and culture, we are now witnessing the leading edge of a large
population gap. Its ultimate dimensions
have yet to be determined, but the implications for Maine will most certainly be
profound. In short, if current trends
continue, this will become Maine’s anti-boom.
A Falling Birth Rate
Maine’s birth rate
has been falling steadily since the mid-1960s. While other jurisdictions in the Southern and
Western United States are coping with masses of new births—especially among the
Hispanic population—here in Maine, the birth rate is at its lowest point since
records were first kept in 1892, about 1 baby born a year for each one hundred
the baby-boom years saw the highest birth rates in this past century, with over
7.2 million Americans born. As the
baby-boom generation reached their childbearing years in the 1980s and 1990s, a
modest rebound occurred in the national birth rate, known as the
“boom-echo”. These “echo children”, the
first of which are now leaving high school, are well represented in Maine’s
schools, and are responsible for the overcrowding in some districts on the
nation at large, however, Maine birth
rates did not experience an echo in the 1980s and 1990s. Births have continued an uninterrupted
decline since the baby-boom years. Where
then did Maine’s echo
children come from? The answer is
migration. These are the children of
in-migrant baby-boomers who have continued to move to the state with their
children through the 1980s and 1990s.
Why is the birth rate so low?
is older than the national average, and ethnically homogenous to an extreme. The average age in Maine is about 37 and rising; and
as of the 2000 Census, Maine is the “whitest” state in
the nation, over 98% Caucasian. These
two facts alone predict a low birth rate.
Older women rarely give birth, and Caucasians have the lowest birth rate
of any common American ethnicity.
A decrease in fertility, and the aging
of women beyond their childbearing years are chiefly responsible for the
decline in birth rates. Maine’s fertility rate—the
number of live births per one thousand women of childbearing age (15-44)—has
been in decline since the end of the baby-boom years in the mid 1960s. Why?
There is a strong correlation between low fertility and high levels of
female participation in the labor force.
Women in Maine, as in the rest of nation,
have in the past 30 years gone to work in increasing numbers. Female labor force participation nationwide
has risen from 43.3% in 1970, to 61.9% in 2000.
Today, over 75% of women in their childbearing years (20-34) are at
Only a complete turn-around of the youth
out-migration trend, and a surge of conception, will raise birth rates in Maine. Even if fertility rates were to suddenly
reverse course, and all available women were to begin to bear children, Maine’s birth rate would not
improve enough to halt our youth population decline. There are simply not enough women of
childbearing age in Maine to counter this trend.
The Migration Problem
Youth are moving out of the state at an
increased pace. Statewide out-migration of the
young was a well-established trend in the 1980s; in the 1990s, the movement
accelerated. Over 17,000 residents who
were between the ages of 10 and 19 in 1990 left Maine over the next ten years,
a shocking 77% increase in the rate of youth out-migration from the decade
The two opposing migration
streams—increasing out-migration, and decreasing in-migration—are
region-specific. Generally speaking, the
southern coastal counties had less in-migration of youth in the 1990s, while
youth from the counties with poorer economic indicators left at a greater rate
than in the previous decade. Piscataquis County lost 50% of its youth in
the 1990s, all due to out-migration.
This county-level data cannot determine how many residents moved to or
from another state; intra-state moves may account for some of these
figures. Still, every part of the state
has contributed to the migration problem; in the 1990s, all counties in Maine had a decline in their
youth population, either due to increased out-migration or decreased in-migration.
In areas with youth
out-migration, more males are leaving than females. This is consistent with established migration
theory, which suggests that males are generally more mobile. Aroostook County, with the
closing of Loring Air Force Base, saw the greatest loss of young men in the
1990s. Curiously, Cumberland County had a
significant in-migration (770) of young females in this time period.
Why is Maine
Young Americans between the ages of 20 and 34 have the
highest rates of migration of any population worldwide— one third of them moved in
the past year, more than twice the moving rate of the population at large. Data from the 2000 Census confirms that the
most common destinations of migrants over the past decade have been the urban
areas of the Southern and Western United States, while rural America and the Northeast suffered
the greatest losses due to out-migration.
From a very broad perspective, then, it is not surprising that Maine, a largely rural state in
the Northeast, has seen net out-migration of our youth.
Without detailed study, it is impossible to
determine the exact causes of Maine’s migration problem. Nonetheless, by piecing together the
migration theory literature, research from other jurisdictions, and other data
from around the state, some plausible explanations emerge:
Going to College
Maine is the sixth
highest exporter of college freshman in the nation. In 1998, 43.4% of Maine’s 19 year olds went to
college. Of all college-bound 19 year-olds in that year, 43.5% (about 3,200)
left to attend an out-of-state institution. Even with Maine’s three prestigious private
liberal arts colleges—Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby—drawing many out-of-state
students, Maine exports more freshmen than
it receives, a net loss of 1,367 freshmen in 1998.
Youth who leave to go to college are
much less likely to return after graduation.
Nationally, students who go out of state to attend college are 54% more
likely to be out of state five years after graduation than someone who went to
college in state; half of all rural college attendees leave home, and do not
return by age 25. 
The well educated are more likely to
move out of a rural area. College graduates move more
often and farther away than high school graduates, and are more than twice as
likely to move to a state other than where they went to high school. Nationally, the highly educated are more
likely to move for work related reasons; and are more prone to undertake long
distance moves. Between 1985-1990, more
than 90% of the total loss of young people from rural areas had at least some
college. Young college graduates also
tend to move if they are from a state that has low employment growth, high
unemployment, or lower wages.
Communities that place a high value on
education are more likely to lose their youth. At the primary and secondary school level,
higher per-pupil expenditure increases the probability of youth out-migration
from a community. The most likely community to suffer a youth
brain drain, then, is in an isolated rural area, with a well-educated
population that spends a lot on their schools.
For better or worse, this is an accurate description of many areas in Maine.
Out-migration in rural areas is more common
among upper-middle-class youth. Though the
poor switch addresses often, wealthier families with higher levels of education
are more prone to undertake long distance moves across state lines. Families that have moved before are more apt
to see their children leave home, and young adult movers are more likely to
have moved in childhood. A study from rural Scotland suggests
that the young adult children of middle-class parents who were themselves
in-migrants to the community are the most likely to leave. Interestingly, these
middle-class children are also more likely to think fondly and romantically
about their hometown, while working-class youth who stay often speak
disparagingly about their community.
It’s the Economy
Regions in Maine with weaker
economies are seeing greater rates of youth out-migration. Workers go where pay is best, and firms
locate where the return on their investment is highest. Strong regional economies, tend to hold on to
their competitive position, as they are better able to finance infrastructure
improvements and expand the pool of skilled labor. Workers and firms migrate to these strong
economies, even though living costs and taxes are typically higher, while
depressed communities fall farther behind and suffer from out-migration, in
economic terms, the loss of human capital. Out-migration in Maine peaked in the early 1990s,
when Maine's economy was particularly soft in comparison with
the rest of the nation.
Substantial benefits accrue to migrants who leave rural areas. After moving, real earnings are about 30% higher for rural-to-urban migrants than
earnings for rural-to-rural migrants. Communities with low per capita incomes are
more likely to experience youth out-migration, and rural youth are more likely
to leave their hometown than urban youth. Moving from a rural to an urban area also
reduces the time spent in poverty, particularly for women.
Young potential in-migrants may
be deterred by a tight housing market.
Young people mostly live in apartments; over half of Maine households
under age 35 live in apartments. Yet, in
the 1990s, the construction of apartments very nearly stopped, and the average
rent of a two-bedroom unit in Portland increased
by 70%, from $500 to about $850. In
1999, Maine ranked
last in the nation in the rate of multi-family housing construction. For a young person contemplating a return to Maine after
accruing student loan debt, affordable housing is a serious concern. At the same time, local businesses in Greater
Portland are having difficulty paying wages high enough to meet their
employees’ housing needs.
Rural to Urban
In such a rural state, leaving for the
big city may simply be a cultural expectation for youth. Migration from rural to urban areas is a well-established
phenomenon that has been deeply ingrained in the culture of Maine since the Civil War. The population of rural America has been in decline for
most of the 20th century, with farmland populations having peaked in the
1930s. In the 1970s, there was a
surprising reversal of that trend. The
so-called “non-metropolitan turnaround” was characterized by net gains and
greater retention of the young and better educated in rural America. This turnaround was short lived, however; by
the mid 1980s, rural to urban migration had returned. Today, the rate of youth out-migration in
many rural communities is twice the state average.
The Perfect Out-migrant
A portrait of the most likely person to
leave Maine: such a person is a young,
male, with aspirations for college, who was raised in a rural area with good
schools and poor job opportunities by upper-middle class, college educated
parents, who were themselves in-migrants in the late 1970s. Taken as a whole, the evidence above can be
read as a collection of risk factors, prevalent in Maine, that increases the
incidence of youth out-migration and deters new in-migrants. Again, without detailed research, it is hard
to know which of these risk factors should be of more concern. It is reasonable to assume, however, that
possession of any combination of these factors, makes a Maine resident more likely to
II Implications for Maine’s Labor
A declining youth population will have wide ranging
economic consequences in every region of the state and sector of its
economy. One area of particular concern
is Maine’s labor force—the number of residents working or
looking for work. Less youth will mean
fewer young workers, and barring a dramatic turn-around in migration patterns,
as this small cohort of Mainers ages, it will bring a shortage of labor though
the years, from entry-level positions to management. A labor shortage is bad, unwelcome news for Maine’s economy. Beginning in industries that rely on youth
labor, such as retail and food service, employers will be hard pressed to find
workers, leading to wage inflation and stunted growth of local businesses.
Demographics and Labor
Labor force participation, employment, and productivity
all vary according to age. The young, ages 16-24, have
lower rates of participation in the labor force, as they are more likely to be
otherwise occupied with school or child care responsibilities. A less-skilled and more transient population,
youth switch jobs often and typically need more training. This is reflected in higher rates of
unemployment and lower productivity levels for young workers. In the last 10 years, the natural
unemployment rate for youth age 16-24 has fluctuated between 9.2% and 15.2%. Conversely, middle-aged residents, 35-50, are
more likely to have jobs and to hold on to them for longer periods of time,
resulting in high labor force participation rates and very low unemployment. Workers in their 40s are the most productive,
both in terms of salary and output, and are less likely to require training.
Nationally, young workers are now
growing faster than the labor force as a whole. As the baby-bust generation reaches their
thirties, the number of young people in the national labor force (ages 16 – 24)
is projected to grow 6% by 2005 due to three national trends: (1) the
“boom-echo” generation entering the workforce; (2) very rapid growth of Asian
and Latin populations in the western and southern states supplying more young
labor; and (3) the immigrant population and their children continuing to boost
youth labor force numbers. Though our nation’s labor force will
certainly suffer when the last of the baby-boom retires over the next 20 years,
many of the supply problems may be mitigated by later retirement, a healthier
older population, immigration increases, and the boom-echo. For the State of Maine, however, there are far
In Maine, when the last
of the baby-boom retires in 2020, there will be a large hole in the labor force
left behind. The immigrant population is comparatively
small, and confined largely to the cities of Portland and Lewiston; there is
hardly any high birth rate ethnic population to speak of; and the boom-echo
cohort is disappearing fast, leaving our youth labor force severely
depleted. As the baby-boomers age and
the youth labor pool shrinks, total available labor in Maine will stagnate. Maine’s total civilian labor
force has grown in fits and starts, by 8% since 1990. Yet, this is due almost entirely to the continued
in-migration of baby-boomers into southern coastal regions of the state. Many of these in-migrants came with young
children, accounting for the sizable “boom-echo” population in the state. With increasing out-migration of youth a
well-established trend in the past two decades, however, Maine is unlikely to keep many of
these children of the baby-boomers.
Thus, with a dearth of youth
in the state, Maine’s labor force is projected
to shrink dramatically. Labor force
participation rates have been increasing in Maine since 1980, particularly
among women and youth, but there are simply not enough residents born after
1965 to make up for the exit of the baby-boom from the working population. Ultimately, this labor shortage will create
problems for Maine’s ability to generate
output and income.
Hard Times Ahead
Youth population decline will impact
the labor force in two phases, before and after baby-boomer’s retirement. The next 10 to 15 years,
Phase I, will be characterized by a rapidly aging labor force, as the
baby-boom, in the last years of their
working life, continue to dominate the workforce. Phase II, beginning around 2020, after most
of the baby-boom has left work, will bring an era of extreme labor force
shortages for Maine at all levels, if current
trends continue. Maine is currently beginning to
experience a youth labor force shortage, and by all indications, it is only the
leading edge of a large empty abyss, the full effects of which will only be
felt when the baby-boom reaches retirement.
Phase I (next 10 to 15 years)
Baby-boomers will keep productivity
rates high, unemployment rates low, and push up average salaries in Maine. The baby-boom generation, now aged 35-57 and
making up the lion’s share of the labor force, are in their most productive
years. Though declining slowly as they
age, these stable and well-trained workers should keep unemployment rates low,
masking some of the ill effects of a youth labor shortage. As the youth labor force continues to shrink
during this period, wages at the bottom end of the job market will rise as
well, with tougher competition for young labor.
But here the good news ends.
A worsening youth labor shortage will
hurt the tourism/recreation industries first. Maine’s
tourism/recreation economy relies heavily on young labor; an inadequate labor
supply is already putting a strain on employers in these industries. Youth who work are employed overwhelmingly in
the retail and food service industries, almost two thirds of all youth aged
16-20 in the labor force. This labor shortage, now felt at the
entry-level, will gradually move up through the job market as this young cohort
ages, creating labor shortages in industries that rely on more skilled labor as
well, even before the baby-boom retires.
Further, with high youth out-migration, there is no reason to expect
that the sizable boom-echo generation, now aged 7-20, will bring much relief.
Phase II (after “the retirement”)
Without substantial new
in-migration, or the benefit of the boom-echo, the future of Maine’s labor force
appears dismal when the last of the baby-boom retires in the 2020 decade. The impact on rural areas that have long
suffered from a falling population will be more severe, as a lack of labor
effectively prevents new business ventures or the growth of existing ones.
Aggravating the situation in this
phase will be the rising numbers of youth and elderly compared to the working
population, or the “dependency ratio”.
With so many baby-boomers in retirement and a small workforce, the
burden of dependents upon the working economy will grow. Maine’s
dependency ratio could rise from 69.7 in 1995 to 78 in 2025. Rising taxes to fund increasing demand on
state services and time spent out-of-work to care for aging loved ones, will hurt
productivity and discourage new business ventures.
III Implications for Maine
A declining youth population will have implications
for virtually every area of public policy; yet nowhere will the effect be so
immediate and profound as in our public schools and education system. Public school enrollments today are falling;
and while some districts continue to prepare for more students, demographers
are hard pressed to find a school-age population or even a cohort of
childbearing women sufficient to reverse the trend. Maine communities will soon be
faced with hard issues, including consolidation of schools and districts,
underutilized school facilities, and a greater financial burden. Mainer’s cannot assume that enrollment
numbers will rebound. Instead, Maine must take proactive steps
now to ensure the quality of our public education system does not suffer in an
era of shrinking resources and infrastructure.
Demographics and Education
The children of the baby-boom, or the
boom-echo, are well established in Maine’s public
schools; yet as they age, there are far fewer children behind them. Elementary school enrollments in Maine have declined over the past
fives years by 6.7% (over 10,000 students) as the bulk of the echo children move
on to high school and college. From 1997 to 2009, Maine is expected to experience a
9% decline in public school enrollment—the largest such decrease in the
Northeast (Vermont's decrease is 6%; Massachusetts' is 1%, and New Hampshire's is 0.2%). Forecasts of district level enrollments have
only been completed for Cumberland County, yet even in this most
populated region, the story is the same: over the next decade, elementary,
middle school, and high school enrollments are all projected to decline in
almost every district.
With the baby-boomers beyond
childbearing age, and accelerating out-migration of youth, there appears to be
no sizable cohort of young families to reverse the projected slide in school
enrollment. Migration data from the Maine State Planning
Office tells the story well. In the
1980s, the two largest in-migrant cohorts were baby-boomers in their 20s and early 30s, and their children, aged
0-10. Ten years later, this statewide
trend slowed considerably, and the echo children, now in their teens, began
leaving the state in droves.
Some notable exceptions do
exist, however. Three districts saw
elementary increases of over 20% between 1995 and 2000: Scarborough, Cumberland, and Falmouth. What accounts for the dramatic increase in
young children in these districts? Once
again, the explanation is migration. A
second wave of young families in their mid-20s and 30s moved to these three
communities in astonishing numbers in the 1990s, even as such in-migration was
slowing down in the rest of the state.
For the majority of Maine communities,
falling enrollments will mean less state-aid for education. Education costs are met with both state and
local dollars, and are directly tied to student enrollment with a statewide
per-pupil guarantee ($4,687 in 2001-02).
Multiplied by the number of students in any given district, the portion
of this guaranteed figure picked up by the state is determined through Maine’s school funding formula
that awards more money to districts with a low per-pupil property
valuation. For districts with declining
enrollments, not only will the operating cost guarantee be lower, but the
state’s General Purpose Aid contribution will also shrink, with fewer pupils
per property valuation. Simply put,
under the current formula, fewer students means less money for education, and
if that loss of revenue cuts into infrastructure costs, a greater local
contribution. Complaints in Augusta are already being heard from
communities with the unfortunate combination of high property values and
School Consolidation and Regionalization
As enrollments decline, diseconomies of
scale may force districts to close schools and pool resources with other districts
in their region, in order to provide the same level of educational opportunity they are
accustomed to without further property tax increases. The call for consolidation and
regionalization is not new. After a
legislative study uncovered severe inefficiencies in the large number and
varying quality of Maine’s small schools, the
“Sinclair Act” of 1957 created the modern School Administrative District
system, encouraging consolidation of small schools. Talk of a “Sinclair Act II” has been floated in
the State House recently, as lawmakers once again look to implement incentives
for consolidation and regionalization.
This past winter, the 120th Legislature passed “A Resolve to
Study School Administrative Unit Organization in Maine” (LD-2043), which will
convene a new study group to reexamine these issues and to find methods for
increasing operational efficiency without sacrificing learning results.
Consolidation may be back on the
agenda, but it doesn’t make closing schools any easier, politically. School consolidation efforts provoke two
highly emotionally charged local issues: the fate of neighborhood schools, and
rising property taxes, subjects on which few citizens are without an opinion. There are strong arguments for keeping
neighborhood schools. Small rural
schools, in particular, are said to produce higher achieving students, and keep
kids more involved in their communities. Increased busing of students and the loss of
a school building as a cultural center of the community are hard pills to
swallow. When the high overhead costs of
keeping a school open with fewer and fewer students, means a significant jump
in property taxes, however, attitudes begin to change.
Virtually all education officials and
scholars in Maine see more
consolidation and regionalization as necessary and ultimately beneficial for
both taxpayers and students. For many,
the arguments against consolidation don’t apply in a state that by national
standards has relatively small schools. There is also general agreement that Maine has far more school
administrative units than it needs, and that a new round of inter-district
consolidation or collaboration will reap new administrative efficiencies. Even without closing schools or merging districts,
a more regional approach to administrative duties would be wise. Sharing administrative costs and pooling
resources to make bulk purchases of fuel, health care and school supplies
should become more common, and is certain to save education dollars in a time
of falling enrollments.
youth population will eventually have an impact on the long-term health of the University of Maine System as well. Supplementing tuition revenues, State dollars
for the University system are allocated in a lump sum each budget cycle. As Maine’s population ages, the
legislature may be compelled to spend more on social services, leaving less
available money for higher education. In
recent years the state portion of University revenues has been falling, transferring
the burden to tuition rates. A drop in
enrollment and an ageing population may mean a drop in higher education
spending for what many believe is an already under-funded system.
The University System had
fluctuating enrollments through the 1990s.
All seven campuses saw a downturn in freshman enrollments in the mid
1990s but have recently enjoyed growing enrollments, with the largest gains at
the University of Southern Maine, and the University of Maine, Orono. These gains are likely due to the sizable
boom-echo cohort now beginning to leave high school and seeking higher
education. But if the current elementary
enrollment figures are any guide, this rise in University enrollments cannot be
sustained without a new source of youth in-migration.
Maine is an exporter of college
students; many more leave the state than arrive to attend college. Unless a way can be found to keep more Maine students in the University
System, and import new ones, 10 to 15 years from now, with less college bound
youth to go around, this net loss of students will likely exasperate a severe
drop in enrollments, undermining the two main revenue streams for the system,
tuition and state appropriations. Further, it is reasonable to presume that the
relatively high non-resident tuition rates, and the small number of graduate
programs of the University of Maine system, is an effective deterrent to new
youth in-migration—a missed opportunity.
IV Implications for Maine
Demographics have always had a profound impact on
the culture of Maine. The identity and values of any region are a
reflection of its residents—their experiences, origins, values, and
population. The young baby-boomers that
moved to Maine in the 1970s and 1980s injected new ideas and
shifted the cultural norms of the state even as they absorbed traditional
Yankee values. Conversely, young
out-migrants today will drain away something as they go. The ways in which a declining youth population
will impact Maine culture can be hard to
quantify, but the loss of the young and well-educated will undeniably have hard
consequences for the communities they leave.
An exodus of youth instills fear that
the future of the community is moving away.
Compared to other regions in the country, New England is fairly culturally
stable, and traditional values die-hard.
Thus, when great waves of migration do occur, the effects are far more
noticeable and can generate painful changes.
Transience of any kind is hard on communities; a great influx of
newcomers can make residents new and old feel disconnected and uncertain about
the future. Likewise, the loss of youth
undercuts resident’s hopes for the future of their town.
Without youth, communities have rather
The traditional centers of cultural life—granges, schools, churches, general
stores, municipal offices—suffer without new members and participants in the
life of the community. It is well
understood that regions with low educational attainment, lack of access to
higher education, poor civic participation, and waning vitality of local
government, are the most likely see their youth leave. But these conditions are just as likely to be
a result of youth out-migration as the cause.
It is reasonable to assume that one of the sad consequences of a
declining youth population in Maine may be just this sort of
The importance of land and family are
pitted against the desire to leave for educational or career
opportunities. Aspirations, or the goals and
dreams and expectations of youth are a fascinating window into the cultural
expectations of a community and a young person’s self esteem. In communities with high rates of youth
out-migration, what happens to the aspirations of youth who are left behind? Youth from rural communities with a tradition
of out-migration are more likely to face conflicting aspirations.
A recent study from the National Center for Student Aspirations, in
Orono, asked school-aged children from all over the state about their
aspirations for the future. These children see education, and college in
particular, as important to a successful career. Yet, over 23% of Maine children in all regions
agreed with the statement, “to be successful I need to move out of state”—the rate
increases in regions with high out-migration.
Clearly, children who watch their older siblings leave town after high
school are well aware of what is at stake in their imminent decision to leave
Other research conducted in
the town of Tremont, on Mount Desert Island, claims that out-migration,
especially when combined with the in-migration of older outsiders and an influx
of summer visitors, undercuts young people’s appreciation of their own
abilities and diminishes their aspirations. Youth seem to understand intuitively that
should they go to college, they would have to stay away from home to find
rewarding work and pay back student loans.
In subtle ways, this argument goes, the very culture of Maine is presenting our children
with an impossible choice: to leave family and land to find a future, or stay
and suffer from low aspirations and a poor self image.
When the college bound youth leave,
does the educational attainment of a community suffer? Given the extraordinary volume of 19 year
olds attending out of state institutions, and the persistently low levels of
attainment of associate, bachelors, and graduate degrees in Maine, there is ample cause for
concern. Levels of educational
attainment are clearly linked to the culture of a region. Well-educated citizens tend to move more
often, have more diverse perspectives on life, and different plans for their
children. Depending upon the young
person’s environment, cultural expectations absorbed by the young may encourage
or discourage them to acquire a college degree; and the migration patterns of
the better educated have cultural implications for both the communities they
leave, and the regions in which they settle.
Historically, education n has not been
a high priority for Maine youth. Not attending high school, much less college,
was the norm for Mainer’s in the first half of the 20th
century. By 1970, just before the
baby-boomer influx, only 8% of Maine residents 25 and older had
a bachelor’s degree. When the
baby-boomers did arrive, over 43% of them had finished college. This educational discrepancy prompted a
tremendous cultural shift in the state, even as it unearthed some latent
xenophobia. One of the components of the
Maine stereotype of “people from away” is their supposed
air of superiority; and some observers note that Maine has an anti-elitist culture
that distrusts the highly educated. Nevertheless, well-educated in-migrants have
had a great cultural impact on the state; their contributions to Maine’s strong legal community,
first-rate health care system, and excellent public education system have been
To fully understand the link between Maine culture and educational
attainment, a comprehensive body of research is needed. Given the wealth of circumstantial evidence,
however, it is not hard to guess at what is happening. The children of the highly educated in Maine
are leaving the state to get a college degree—most of them will not likely return—while
the majority of kids from less privileged backgrounds are either not attending,
or dropping out of Maine institutions.
This unhappy predicament does not bode well for Maine’s future. The extent to which cultural expectations are
fueling this trend, is a matter for urgent study.
V Conclusion: The need for a
Maine’s youth are undeniably
disappearing, thanks to an unfortunate combination of low birth rates, high
youth out-migration, and low youth in-migration. This paper has outlined the basics of this
demographic phenomenon and its possible implications in three areas. A declining youth population is indeed
something to be worried about. More than
worry, however, the loss of Maine’s youth demands
action. Still enjoying the benefits from
the continuing growth of the baby-boom cohort, it is easy to become
complacent. But Maine must begin to plan now for
the anti-boom—the day when the last of the baby-boomers has retired and Maine must function with many
less people. Without honest dialogue,
and a statewide response, Maine’s economy, education
system, and cultural heritage, will no longer be sustainable in years to come.
The first step, of which this research is a small
part, is to help decision makers from both the public and private sectors gain
an understanding of the youth population problem—its dimensions, its causes,
its implications—and to encourage people to work together to find appropriate,
targeted solutions. The knowledge
gathered in this paper is only the very beginning of a true understanding of
the problem. Though one can guess at the
causes of youth migration from the circumstantial evidence, nobody really knows
why youth leave Maine, or are deterred from
moving here, because nobody has asked them.
A large longitudinal study of Maine youth is order. Before a detailed and accurate picture of the
problem, with all of its regional variations, can come into focus, an effective
Maine-based response is out of reach.
Maine needs a strong reversal of
youth migration patterns and a new surge in births. How to encourage such a turn-around is an
open question. From “pro-natalist”
policies in Japan to a student loan
forgiveness proposal in PEI, there are many ideas from
other jurisdictions on how to curb a declining youth population. Yet before ideas can be shared and solutions
identified, Maine policy makers must grasp
the problem and understand its unique dimensions. Maine State Government must lead the
way. Only with a government-led
investigation and dialogue can Maine hope to marshal the
resources to develop and implement a Maine solution for a Maine problem: the loss of youth.