ST. ALBANS — It’s a familiar story, told repeatedly by the state’s politicians and media – the average age of Vermonters is rising and the state’s population is stagnant.
However, that isn’t the entire story. In fact, Franklin County has fewer older people and more children, as a percentage of the population, than any other county in the state.
Franklin County is also one of four Vermont counties seeing population growth.
The trend is likely the result of young families moving into the county, but whether that will continue depends upon the decisions made by the Millennial generation, the oldest of whom are just now starting to marry.
Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates Vermont’s overall population increased just 0.1 percent between 2010 and 2013 but Franklin County’s population increased 1.1 percent during that same time period. [In that same time period the nation as a whole grew 2.4 percent.]
Michael Moser, of UVM’s Center for Rural Studies, said that the growth seen locally is the result of the “bedroom community effect of Chittenden County.”
He added, “There is a desire by folks to maybe be in a more rural environment and still have access to jobs in Chittenden County,” said Moser.
Similar effects can be seen in Lamoille and Grand Isle counties.
Chittenden and the three counties around it are the only ones in Vermont the Census Bureau estimates have gained population since 2010. Rutland County fares the worst in census estimates, losing 1.7 percent of its population in just three years, with Essex county not far behind at 1.5 percent.
Both counties have higher than average numbers of elderly citizens and fewer than average children.
According to the Economic Research Service (ERS), for the past three years non-metropolitan areas have been losing population as a whole, with just 15 percent of the nation’s population now living outside of urban areas.
Rural counties have been growing more slowly than urban counties since the 1990s, and some rural counties have been losing population for decades.
However, that trend has grown more pronounced. Since 2010, nearly 400,000 people have left 1,200 counties across the country. During that same period 700 urban counties had a combined population increase of 300,000.
ERS attributes the shift to unemployment, damage done to the housing market and rising energy costs. Suburban growth and the movement of retirees to more scenic and serene locations had previously driven migration to rural areas, but ERS found those trends have weakened.
A 2010 ERS analysis of population patterns in rural counties from 1998 to 2008 found that rural counties tend to lose young adults as students graduated from high school and left to attend college or join the military. Counties with steady or growing populations made up for that loss by attracting young families and retirees.
Data would suggest this is the trend for Franklin County.
Six percent of the county’s population is under the age of five, compared with just 4.9 percent across the state. Franklin County also has a higher percentage of residents under the age of 18 – 23.7 percent compared to just 19.8 percent for the state as a whole. Franklin County’s numbers are roughly in line with the national trend, which is 23.5 percent of the population under 18 and 6.4 percent under 5.
The elderly make up just 13 percent of the county’s population, compared with 15.7 percent for the state and 13.7 percent nationally.
Lamoille County’s numbers are similar, although Lamoille has a slightly smaller percentage of children and a higher percentage of elderly citizens than Franklin County.
Chittenden County shows a different pattern. Children are a smaller percentage of that county’s population than they are for the state as a whole. Just 19 percent of the county’s population is under the age of 18.
However, Chittenden County has the lion’s share of the state’s young adults. More than 10 percent of those living in Chittenden County are between the ages of 20-24. In Franklin County, less than five percent of the population is in this age group.
The Chittenden County numbers undoubtedly reflects the presence of multiple colleges within the county.
But it may also reflect a larger pattern among Millennials, the generation born after 1980. With more than 80 million members, it is the largest generation in American history, exceeding even the Baby Boomers, and it has shown a marked preference for urban areas.
There is a lot of speculation among self-proclaimed experts about why, from the suggestion that Millennials crave the “adventure” of the city to their supposed desire for “connectedness.”
One undeniable fact is that marriage ages are shifting later. Women are now delaying marriage until 27 and men until 28. If young adults leave rural areas and return after marrying, as data shows they do, then marrying later means they’ll be older when they return, creating a bigger age gap in rural counties.
It also may make them less likely to return, if they become more settled in urban areas than previous generations and urban planners become more adept at creating family friendly cities.
“I’m curious about how we can turn all of these college attendees from out of state into residents,” said Moser. Many of them come here because they’re attracted to the state itself, particularly to skiing and other outdoor activities, he said.
But that requires jobs, and the kind of urban area where those in their twenties can socialize with their peers.
St. Albans and the future
Chittenden County is a totally different place from the rest of the state, said Moser. “There’s not the kind of marketplace that can sustain a high level of population growth,” said Moser of sections of the state.
Other urbanized areas in the state are smaller, but there are some that are prospering, primarily those along the major transportation routes into and out of Chittenden County, explained Moser.
“St. Albans could be that,” he said. The community has “wonderful housing stock,” the downtown redevelopment and proximity to Chittenden County, he noted.
For those reasons, he believes St. Albans could grow in ways similar to Vergennes or Bristol.