Fighting Southeast Alaska's Youth Drain

A few months ago, I read this article about a presentation by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough's new manager, Ruben Duran. Near the end, the article states the following:

I have to admit, this statement annoyed me a little. As a 26-year-old raised in Ketchikan who returned to living and working here as an adult, I believe there's a shortage of people my own age on the island, not people my parents' age. It seems to me that Ketchikan should prioritize attracting Millennials—young working people who will counterbalance the increasing number of residents who are retirement age or older.

Over the last few years, media outlets have highlighted how Southeast has become the oldest region in Alaska, even calling the phenomenon a "silver tsunami." (See here and here.) Apparently, the biggest factor behind this trend is that older people are now better able to keep living in Southeast, rather than being forced to move elsewhere out of necessity, as often happened in the past. Obviously that's a great thing. My grandparents have stayed in Ketchikan since they retired, (living here continuously since 1954!), and I'm incredibly happy they're here.

Nevertheless, it is a real issue for a place like Ketchikan (and small towns across the United States) if a large segment of the population is retired or approaching retirement and there aren't as many younger working people around to keep the community's economy strong. High school graduates in Ketchikan are drawn away in large numbers to Anchorage and Fairbanks, as well as Seattle, Portland, and other urban centers down south—not just to go there for college, but to live and work there permanently.

A newly-released study from state economists tracked the life choices of around 6,000 of the 7,000 young Alaskans who graduated from high school in 2005. For the purposes of this post, I focused on where these people ended up residing. As of 2014, around 70-75% of the class of 2005 graduates who never went to college or went to college in Alaska still live in Alaska. Meanwhile, only around 30% of those who went to college outside Alaska still live in Alaska.

Unfortunately, there's no regional or community breakdown within this study, so it doesn't let us in on the particulars of Southeast Alaska or Ketchikan's situation. I decided to conduct my own—entirely non-scientific—survey of where Facebook friends I went to high school with ended up living. I counted 115 friends that I attended Ketchikan High School with, coming from the graduating classes of 2007 through 2012, now aged about 23-28 years old. There were ten people whose residence I really couldn't determine, so I was left with 105 total (almost one of those "if the world were 100 people" things).

Here's the result:

Again, this little survey of mine is entirely anecdotal, and probably not 100% accurate. Nonetheless, it does show large portions of Ketchikan's youth leaving their hometown, moving "up north" to elsewhere in Alaska (mostly Anchorage) or "down south" to elsewhere in the U.S. (mostly Washington and Oregon). Personally, I was surprised that the number living in Ketchikan was as large as 39%, but that group is probably overrepresented among my current Facebook friends, since I live here myself.

Of course, nothing that I'm saying in this post means that I judge or resent anyone who leaves Ketchikan after growing up here. I completely understand the many, many different reasons that young people move away, and my wife and I could have very easily been in the same boat. As it is, I feel very lucky that we both found great job opportunities here after college.

Still, I continue to believe that it is a commendable and precious thing for young people to stay in or return to their hometown, contributing to the community that they're most deeply connected to. This New York Times piece, "Why I'm Moving Home," outlines some general arguments for the value of Americans returning to their hometowns—in particular, fighting the brain drain that hurts small towns and contributes to our nation's continuing polarization along the lines of class, education, and the rural-urban divide.

As for me, I don't think I can sum up my own feelings better than I did in this post on my teaching blog: "Why I am a Teacher in Ketchikan, Alaska." It's extremely meaningful to me that I am able to work in my own community and contribute to the place I love most in the world. I know not everyone has that privilege, or that desire. Nevertheless, community leaders in Ketchikan should be doing as much as they can to allow and entice young people to stay in, return to, or move to our town.

It is a nice idea for Baby Boomers to come to Ketchikan to retire, and there's plenty of value to that—but Ketchikan needs young people! For anyone doing their part to fight Southeast Alaska's youth drain, please know you are appreciated.

Leave me a comment below with your thoughts.