When I was a kid growing up in Connecticut, I hated my family vacations on Cape Cod — two weeks out of every August spent in a cramped cottage without cable TV, my mom dragging my angst-y, pale self to the beach every day. But at college in Boston, after I fell in love with a woman born and raised in Barnstable County, I also fell in love with where she lived — the bluffs in Wellfleet, the restaurants in Hyannis and Falmouth, the unhurried Octobers when you didn’t need a beach sticker. Even after she and I married and we eventually made our home on the Cape, I felt the same shift that out-of-towners feel whenever they drive east over the Sagamore Bridge: as if all your burdens just got lighter.
But now I’m writing these words in a room with empty walls and towers of moving boxes. By the time you read this, my wife and I will have sold our home and headed west, to Connecticut. When we return to the Cape, we’ll just be a couple of thirtysomethings paying a visit.
Our situation isn’t unusual: Over the last 15 years, young professionals have been leaving Cape Cod in droves. Between 2000 and 2010, Barnstable County lost about 15,000 year-round residents aged 25 to 44, according to the last US Census — a nearly 27 percent decline of that demographic, due to both graying and migration. The decline was twice that seen by the rest of the Commonwealth. This spring, the UMass Donahue Institute projected that while Massachusetts would add almost 772,000 residents between 2015 and 2035, Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties would lose more than 24,000. Through 2020, the primary driver of the drop will be the flight of young people like us.
There are regionwide implications to this population hollowing out, from a lack of health care staffing to treat the growing ranks of elderly, to the shuttering and consolidating of public schools. “This demographic is critical to being that next force, the next voice, the next generation of decision makers, of people running businesses, the future leaders on Cape Cod,” says Anne Van Vleck, executive director of Cape Cod Young Professionals (CCYP), a decade-old advocacy and networking organization.
Two years ago, CCYP launched Shape the Cape, an initiative aimed at uncovering the issues behind the exodus and trying to find solutions. Much of the problem comes down to money and housing. According to a recent report in the Cape Cod Times, affording the region’s median single-family home price of $343,000 would require annual wages of $85,000. The problem is, the median household income in Barnstable County is only about $61,000. Last summer, CCYP released survey results that paint a stark picture for the younger segment of the Cape’s populace: Only a third of respondents said they made a living wage, less than 39 percent said there were enough jobs in their field, and at least half said they spent too much of their income on housing. It’s not particularly shocking to learn that almost half of respondents said they had considered moving off-Cape within the previous year.
I didn’t always share my demographic cohort’s get-me-out-of-here sentiments. My wife and I orbited Greater Boston while she finished nursing school and I wrote my way onto the masthead of a magazine on the Cape, always eyeing a year-round life there. When we finally moved to Barnstable four years ago, we had reasonably steady employment — she worked as a night-shift nurse and I eventually moved into full-time freelance writing. We felt lucky to make a solid middle-class income. Her parents put us up until we had enough for a down payment on a $300,000 three-bedroom ranch in Centerville, where we expected to raise a family. We figured that when we aged into wheelchairs, we’d just widen the doorways.
But lately the sacrifices required to live on Cape Cod felt too dear. After paying for our groceries, electricity, cellphone service, and mortgage, we never had much left over. Despite an overall need for experienced health care workers, my wife found few opportunities to advance at her hospital. Meanwhile, my freelancing started to feel less like freedom and more like constraint. It was hard to find others of our age and in our circumstances — it doesn’t help that we aren’t joiners — and our small circle of friends stopped expanding. Even after a winter getting walloped by storms, I didn’t look forward to summer. That season had already lost its allure, thanks to tourists who jacked up takeout wait times to an hour and turned Sagamore Bridge traffic into a Great Wall constructed entirely of SUVs with roof racks and cranky drivers.
In the spring, after my wife finished her nurse-practitioner education, she got a dose of perspective attached to a dollar sign. Cape Cod’s pair of hospitals had few openings for new nurse practitioners, and they usually paid a salary out of line with one of the country’s most in-demand professions. By contrast, in Connecticut, we found a home a mile from the beach comparable in size and price to our Centerville ranch as well as dozens of nurse-practitioner jobs within a 40-minute drive. She accepted one that pays tens of thousands more than her best choice in Barnstable County.
We still have mixed emotions about our decision, and we’re not ruling out an eventual return. (It turns out Connecticut is experiencing its own residential crisis of confidence.) But to lure us — and probably a lot of other youngish people — back to the Cape for good, a few things need to change. None of these changes would come quickly, easily, or cheaply, but they all get to the heart of the problem.
First, there’s the issue of jobs and wages. Cape Cod needs to grow beyond a tourism and service economy, and it needs incentives to attract 21st-century businesses. Whether those businesses are biotech or software or something else is a question for brighter minds than mine, but the Cape’s natural beauty needs an economic counterpart that’s just as appealing. The rise of telecommuting certainly helps — I owe my career to it — and I’d hate to see new industries inadvertently turn the Cape into a sprawling warren of office parks that belongs inside Route 128. But young workers from Suffolk County and elsewhere need to find bigger paychecks here. Living over the bridge shouldn’t require taking a financial loss just because that’s the way it’s always been.
We also obviously need more moderately priced housing. Sure, second-home McMansions pockmarking the waterfront inflate home prices for everyone else, but a big reason why my wife and I initially lived with her parents was our best year-round apartment prospect had a single “bedroom” so narrow you couldn’t stretch your arms. Other full-time residents pivot between leasing summer rentals nine months a year and taking whatever they can find in the high season. The Cape needs more intelligently designed housing developments suited to the lifestyles and price ranges of young renters — places that provide stability while they work and save for their first down payment.
The Cape also needs more opportunities for higher education. Last winter, Bridgewater State University opened a satellite campus in Yarmouth. It was an encouraging step, and I hope the region goes many steps further. Imagine something like a UMass Mashpee, a bona fide four-year college complete with dorms and sports teams. What better way to lure young people from elsewhere and defeat the reputation of dull, depressing offseasons than an infusion of youthful vibrancy?
Then again, maybe all I need to bring me back to Cape Cod before I get my AARP card is an attitude adjustment. Van Vleck says she hears over and over about young people who are finding creative ways to make life work on her side of the bridge. And for her and her organization, stopping the Cape’s exodus of young people isn’t necessarily about drawing in new industries. It’s about promoting civic engagement, supporting native talent, and persuading everyone else that living on the Cape is an attractive option. “Are they making what they would be making off-Cape? Maybe not,” Van Vleck says. “But, ultimately, living here comes down to a quality-of-life choice.”
That’s why my wife and I are ambivalent about leaving it all behind. Life on the Cape can be wonderful, even — and maybe especially — during the long, gray offseasons. When I remember simple things like idling in the Nauset Beach parking lot and scarfing down doughnuts, walking with my off-leash dogs while they leave the only paw prints in the sand, and watching the sun climb over surfers while Atlantic waves surge toward my ankles, I realize how lucky I am to be able to still visit.
But to live on Cape Cod, you need to be so enchanted by those simple pleasures that a lower ATM balance, a pricier mortgage payment, and the bipolar mood of the seasons don’t matter so much. You need to want to live on the Cape. Badly. When you waver, you might as well start packing.Jeff Harder is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.