One of the issues facing Cape Cod as a whole is its ongoing emigration of young people. Often you hear about the region losing its post-college age residents,a.k.a. the future of the Cape’s workforce; residents between ages 25 and 34 are the minority. There are twice as many senior citizens living here now, and they sure aren’t going to give up their golden years to patch holes in the workforce…not that they could in many cases (unless you know some 65-year-olds who can swap out a crashed server).
The reason frequently cited for this bleeding is affordability. Whether renting or buying, homes on the Cape are prohibitively expensive for the typical college grad, whose first priority is to land a gig that will allow him to pay both living expenses and his student loans, and perhaps allow for a few luxuries, like eating meat on a regular basis…believe me: you spend four years eating nothing but Ramen and Twinkies, and ground beef becomes more precious than gold.
Our elected officials tend to think that resolving this situation is a matter of improving two conditions; provide affordable housing and jobs that pay solid wages, and young people will stay on or come back to the Cape.
Affordability and the job market are two small elements of a larger and much more complex formula; there are many other reasons why Cape kids don’t stick around to become Cape adults, and we cannot hope to negate a lot of those influences, so it’s time for our local, regional, even state-level elected officials to admit the bitter truth: you aren’t going to succeed in reversing this particular tide. Young people are going, will continue to go, and in most cases will go for good. Next time you see them as residents, they’ll be buying their retirement homes.
A lot of kids are lost to the region the day they leave for college. Following high school, their old social bases are scattered to the four winds, so they start building new bases at college. They become emotionally attached to a whole new crowd, and those ties become stronger over time as their old ties weaken. By the time they’re ready to head out into the real world, they’ve lost one of their best reasons to come home; chances are, all their old high school chums are everywhere but on good ol’ Cape Cod, and precious few college grads are going to move back in with mom and dad if they can afford not to.
The seeds of this escape are planted early. If you’ve grown up on the Cape, you know that once you hit the magical age of 13, there is simply nothing to do around here until you’re old enough to hit the bars (and if that becomes your main source of entertainment, you’ve got deeper problems).
What is there for, say, the typical Falmouth teen? The town’s previous mecca for teen socialization, the Falmouth Mall, is no longer a viable location for the adolescent elite to meet and greet. Once the mall at least provided a sheltered gathering spot, vital during the cruel winter months, but now it’s open-air, and no way in hell would Wal-Mart allow teens to come in and loiter until closing time. The arcade on Main Street used to be a happenin’ spot — it was my home away from home for a huge chunk of my youth — but why go there and shell out a buck a pop to play video games when you’ve got a PlayStation at home?
Teens living in and around Boston have two things Cape kids sorely lack: available non-parental transportation and a wealth of social opportunities. When I was sixteen, I would have killed just to have the option of hopping the T and going to the Boston Garden (or whatever it was called at the time) to take in a concert from a major performer, or go to an all-ages club, or wander around the Museum of Science. If you’re a teenager on the Cape and you don’t have a friend with his own car, you’re limited to where ever your parents are willing to drive you, and you can bet the average parent in Truro isn’t going to haul their kid to the Cape Cod Mall just so they can get shuffled about by the rent-a-cops for a few hours.
Sure, the place is kinda hoppin’ during the summer months, but for 10 months out of the year, Cape Cod is, like, Snoozeville, daddio. That’s more than enough to give the average teen a healthy case of wanderlust, and as the saying goes, how’re you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?
To repeat: you can’t.
I admit to occasionally feeling wistful and nostalgic for Falmouth. My last apartment in town, before I moved off-Cape to be with my wife, was next door to Kappy’s. On a whim I could grab a book and trot over to Starbucks to chug coffee and read, zip over to Paul’s to grab some pizza for dinner, then settle in with some movies from Video Paradise. Peking Palace and the Clam Shack were two minutes away driving time, my office at the Enterprise three.
Meanwhile, all my friends in Boston and Revere and Saugus and Salem and Gloucester and Brockton and Bellingham and Lynn and Swampscott and Nahant were having a grand old time. And if I wanted to join them? Hello, two-hour drive.
Even if I could afford to live on the Cape, I wouldn’t. My life isn’t here anymore. It’s elsewhere, and that’s where I want to be.
Cape Cod has a lot more to worry about than providing decent wages and reasonably priced homes. It has to provide young people with a full, well-rounded life, and that’s not happening overnight, or even in this generation. The future of the Cape’s workforce isn’t in high school or even elementary school, it’s in kindergarten and preschool. Give them what they need at every level — financially and socially — and you have a shot at keeping them around after college.
Otherwise? Better hope gramps is better at reformatting hard drives than he is setting the clock on his VCR.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.