If West Virginia wants to seriously take a run at finding a cultural, educational and economic mojo that entrepreneurs and businesses can take to the bank, if it wants to shape a place with lifestyle options that younger folks would find attractive and inviting, then it will also have to address the constricting and limiting ways of cultural conservatism and find a way to outwardly celebrate diversity in all forms.
If the state’s civic, business, educational and political leaders do not make major accommodations for the generation that is coming of age — the millennials — then we may as well roll up the welcome mat and turn out the lights.
It should come to no one’s surprise that West Virginia’s population is growing long in the tooth and decreasing in numbers. Those statistical profiles are not ideal in any circumstance, but especially troubling in combination.
In 2010, the state’s population started to drop and hasn’t stopped. By 2030, according to a 2017 report by West Virginia University, the number of people living here will touch 1,806,816 — a loss of more than 46,000 people over the course of two decades.
For context, the estimated 2016 population of Huntington, home to Marshall University, was 48,000.
West Virginia also has an aging population. According to U.S. Census data, West Virginia was the fourth oldest state in 2016 with a median age of 42.2. In 2000, it was 38.9 years.
In a fresh statistical comparison, WalletHub — a credit score and credit report company — rated the state as second worst in the eyes of millennials. In the categories of quality of life, economic health and civic engagement? 49th.
Where was the silver lining to these dark clouds? The state rated highest — second — for lowest housing costs.
Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia and forever the optimist, knows the challenges in attracting and retaining a younger population, but she also sees opportunity for the next generation to contribute to solving challenges and to starting and building careers.
But if no one in the current power structure invites young people to the table, if the newly minted college grads at Marshall or West Virginia University Tech do not see how they fit into a future that is not all that different from the present, then they will go elsewhere and their fresh perspectives and profound ideas will be the gold that someone else mines.
These are our children, and they represent the best and brightest hope for the relevancy of our state.
We can either turn a cold shoulder to their ways and their thinking and wish them good fortune to wherever they move or welcome them home with open arms.