U.S. Census: Young adults flee Cape Cod

They leave the Cape, they say, because the housing is unaffordable or because the social options are scarce. Or they never come at all, citing a lack of opportunities for career advancement or a dearth of potential romantic partners.

“Pretty much all my close friends have left,” said Ben Woods, 27, who moved from Brewster to Boston nine years ago, after graduating from high school on the Cape. “It definitely has appeal to visit for a few days at a time, but I don’t think I can ever see myself living there full time again.”

Since 2000, Cape Cod has lost more than a quarter of its population of young adults, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures being released today. Between 2000 and last year, the number of people between the ages of 25 and 44 living on Cape Cod fell 26 percent, from 55,577 to 40,658.

Statewide, the population in that age range fell by 13 percent over the same period.

At the same time, the number of Cape residents 80 or older jumped 21 percent, from 13,833 in 2010 to 16,759 last year.

The specific numbers may be new, but the trend is far from surprising.

The decline in the Cape’s population of young people has been a significant concern in the region since at least 2007, when demographer Peter Francese galvanized business and civic leaders with his analysis of the area’s demographic woes. Fewer young people and a rapidly aging population, he warned, could drive up health care costs, increase taxes and weaken the overall economy.

“There’s always been an urgency,” said Wendy Northcross, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “We have to reverse the trend.”

Four years after leaders started responding to Francese, the results of local efforts to attract young people to Cape Cod and keep them here have been uneven. However, as early programs faltered, some new initiatives have been launched.

Perhaps the most direct response to Francese’s presentation was the formation of Cape Cod Focus, a sort of steering committee intended to help inform and guide efforts to improve the region’s demographic balance.

The group held some initial meetings, created a website and sponsored some events, but faded from the scene within a couple of years.

“It disappeared for lack of administrative support,” said Gary Sheehan, the CEO of Cape Medical Supply and one of the founders of Cape Cod Focus.

The economic downturn also played a role in the group’s demise, Northcross said.

“That information came on the cusp of the deep recession,” she said. “There were always good intentions, but when you don’t have resources, things get put on ice.”

In 2008, the state, local employers and Housing Assistance Corp. launched a collaborative effort to subsidize housing for area workers who earned average incomes. At least one person — an employee of Shepley Wood Products — bought a house through the program, but it also fell victim to the recession, HAC chief executive Rick Presbrey said.

“What we found was that lots of employers want housing for their employees, but the approach to getting it done was complicated in some ways,” he said. “Part of it was employers not wanting to come up with any cash in a situation when things are bad.”

As the economy begins its slow climb toward recovery, however, other efforts are springing up to replace those that have fizzled out.

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Cape Cod Technology Council, Cape Cod Commission and OpenCape Corp. have formed an effort called Smarter Cape that, Northcross said, has evolved out of the ideas Cape Cod Focus was promoting.

“Essentially, the Smarter Cape effort is looking at how can we use innovative thinking and technology to diversify our economy,” she said.

The leaders of the four groups meet regularly and are in the process of writing a concrete plan for action, she said. Possible steps include a marketing campaign to promote the Cape as a great place to live and work, and the creation of a regional permitting process, she said.

Cape Cod Young Professionals, founded in 2005, will soon be launching a program called Career Connect to give scholarships to young professionals seeking further education, and help create internship and mentor opportunities for participants, Brian Carey, the president of the group’s board of directors, said.

“We’re really hoping that this takes off and can have a very good impact on the Cape in terms of retaining young professionals down here,” he said.

To Francese, however, the newest census numbers suggest that the Cape should still be alarmed. A population with more people over 65, he said, translates into higher health care costs for everyone, while shrinking numbers of young people make it harder for businesses to thrive, he said.

“There’s nobody left to speak of that can afford to live on the Cape,” he said.

The only way to change the course is to undertake a coordinated Capewide effort to rebalance the area’s population, Francese said.

“The Cape is suffering from a multitude of problems because it would not realize the central fact that demographics is destiny,” he said. “Now the question is, with their backs up against the wall, are they going to do anything? I don’t know the answer.”

This story was published in the Cape Cod Times on August 18, 2011. Read the story and see more detailed numbers at CapeCodOnline.com.

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