I recently came across an article in the Vermont Digger that highlights Vermont Futures Project’s identification of the workforce gap in Vermont. It referenced a report, which concludes that:
The so-called workforce supply gap is the result of more people retiring and fewer people entering the workforce. According to the report, 11,375 Vermonters retire every year, and an additional 7,600 jobs are open for other reasons. At the same time, only 8,000 young people enter the workforce from either high school or college.
Of course one solution mentioned in the report is to attract more immigrants, but the long term answer is to address the fertility issue, as Vermont has the lowest birthrate in the nation. I would like to suggest that there is a missing dimension to both the fertility issue and our ability to welcome new immigrants that is getting little discussion. Let me address the immigration issue first.
If we are to attract more immigrants to Vermont, we will need to consider the cultural shock that many experience in immigrating from a culture where religion is a vital part of life to one in which that is increasingly not the case. We need to heed the lesson provided by France’s problem with assimilation. Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is a Muslim, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Syria. He is also the founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization that works to integrate the principles of our Declaration of Independence with his Muslim faith. In November of 2005, after witnessing the riots in the “French” Muslim communities, he co-authored an article entitled “American secularism offers lesson to France.” Here is his insight into why Europe is having a harder time integrating its Muslim community than America is:
Many have been quick to compare America’s challenges with its own Muslim population to Europe’s, but there is a central difference. America is a place where all spirituals paths are supported. It is a country where God is freely talked about in its founding documents. This gives great support to all faiths, especially those in the minority. It gives all people of faith a sense that they belong here.
This language reaffirming man’s spiritual nature is what is sorely missing in Europe. If one takes away that foundation, one is left with a cold secularism that, in turn, becomes the most attractive breeding ground for religious fanatics.
In that anti-religious environment, where is the truly devotional to turn? On one side there is the “God is dead” people, and on the other is the “Your God is dead” people. To someone who simply is trying to practice his faith, this is a toxic environment indeed.
The question is how to promote the individual innovativeness so valuable to an entrepreneurial society without sacrificing the traditional values that were the glue holding earlier societies together.
The second matter to address is a declining birthrate and an aging population. These factors pose a number of problems for any civilization. The question is how do we mitigate these factors. Demographic expert Phillp Longman wrote an article entitled “The Global Baby Bust,“for the May/June 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs, in which he shed some light on the subject: “Today there is a strong correlation between religious conviction and high fertility. In the United States, for example, fully 47 percent of people who attend church weekly say that the ideal family size is three or more children, as compared to only 27 percent of those who seldom attend church.”
Here is the conclusion that Longman reaches from his observations of global demographic data: “Does this mean that the future belongs to those who believe they are (or who are in fact) commanded by a higher power to procreate? Based on current trends, the answer appears to be yes.”
Taking the question of religious values seriously in the public square need not be a sectarian matter, or violate our separation of Church and State. There are ways to take the notions expressed by our Declaration of Independence serious in our public discussion that include this of all faiths. Again such an approach is not just a matter of utility, but a key factor in human development. According to a study entitled “Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities,” human beings are “hardwired” to connect to a transcendent source of moral meaning and purpose and to an authoritative community that transmits this sense of meaning and purpose.