“Demographics Is Destiny” ? Maybe Not

by Martin Harris

Confusion between singular and plural notwithstanding (maybe, as in so much of modern literacy education, such things doesn’t matter any more) the old Sociology 101 saw about demographics determining a population’s destiny was, and still is, fairly true for large populations –think cultures, nations or races– and demonstrably untrue for smaller ones –think cultures, cities and States. A large population which, for whatever socio-economic-military reasons, fails to keep its birth rate and/or in-migration rates (with assimilation) at least equal to its death and/or out-migration rates, will eventually go extinct –think Neanderthals long ago or most of the Northern European nations today– but a smaller population –think medieval “stadt luft macht frei” cities in Europe or modern retirement/trust-funder States/counties/cities in the US—can emerge to levels of separate recognition, remain sustainable as im-migration continues, and even grow, when additions exceed subtractions. The ancient example of public-health-deficient medieval and early Industrial Revolution cities, which were statistically lethal to the rural folk who flocked in anyway, for more freedom and prosperity than they could ever achieve as serfs or tenants, proves that, with enough in-migration, even such losses can be managed. The modern examples of such sun-belt magnets as the Sun Cities in FL, CA, AZ, and TX, or such non-sun-belt counties as Henderson, NC, demonstrate that low birth-rates and a near-absence of young, reproducing, working-age age families need be no deterrent to jurisdictional survival, so long as other factors —think climate, cost-of-stay, or esthetics– continue to attract more new recruits than residents lost to death or departure. Conversely, cities with relatively high birth rates can still shrink towards nothingness for political-economic reasons –think Detroit– or can be so changed by waves of out- and in-migration as to be quite different places and populations from those which dominated earlier: there are few Dutch farmers left in NYC’s Haarlem, and few low-income urban-wage-worker/row-house dwellers in D.C.’s Georgetown.

All that factual historical background encourages your Humble Scribe to take respectful issue with recent Cassandra-style declarations in Vermont newspapers because of the State’s now-well-established pattern of young-adult singles and families-with-children out-migration, as Census-proven by statistical shrinkage of those demographic cohorts. In early April, St. Albans Messenger editor/publisher Emerson Lynn opined dismally about “Demographics, Burlington, and the Future of Vermont”, and in early June the Addison Independent’s guest columnist Eric Davis opined similarly that “Vermont Needs More Young Adults”. Both base their arguments on comparison with a more normal/traditional/historic population pattern, with births comfortably ahead of deaths and migrations of specific cohorts only, like young adults, dependent children, or older cost-of-stay-sensitive economic groups leaving while younger groups of transfer-payments/benefits-seekers are arriving, so rare as to be fairly unusual. The Lynn concern is that only the Burlington area is growing, demographically, while the rest of the State is shrinking, and he labels it a jobs –“economic development challenge”– problem. The Davis concern is more generally about overall aging, as older people, above-median in wealth and/or income, migrate in (in recent years, they’ve typically slightly out-numbered the out-migration of younger people) and more specifically about the concentration of job growth in one area –the Burlington Metro counties– and one category –quasi-governmental education and health care, not the old stand-by’s of private enterprise in industry –think the now-nearly-vanished machine-tool corridor along the Connecticut River or the slow shrinkage of the IBM presence along the Winooski– or in agriculture, as the once-dominant family dairy farm model continues to give way to both larger-scale near-factory farming and smaller-scale, but larger numbers, of mini-farming enterprises. Interestingly, neither commentator even mentions the once-front-page question of the appropriate role for tourism as the third leg of the three-part economic “stool”, the other two, back then, being agriculture and industry. Nor does either point out that, today, the single largest component of State Domestic Product is government.

And neither does either present any argument (other than the not-specifically-recited preference for an earlier, more traditional, demographic pattern that is now vanishing under new pressures) for their case that what’s presently happening is not, to use a modern label, “sustainable”. Not everyone sees the ongoing transition from predominantly private-sector and relatively smaller-scale ag, manufacturing, and commerce to a far larger role for quasi- and full-governmental involvement in important sectors, to a mix of larger- and smaller-scale ag, and to big-box stores supplementing village downtowns, as their personal preference, but that doesn’t mean it’s unworkable. It’s been going on long enough that present patterns of out-migration (of those who, presumably, disapprove) more than balanced by in-migration of those who, apparently, approve and/or accept, suggest pretty strongly that, in the modern State, demographics aren’t destiny any more. Personal preferences and individual or family mobilities is.