“Love It and Go:” The Choices Young Wyoming Face | Business
In the fall of 2017, Stormy Cox, then a senior at Hot Springs High School, wrote of her home state: âIn my heart I would like to stay in Wyomingâ¦ The majority of my family lives in Wyoming. It’s hard to leave them all behind and be alone. If I could stay in Wyoming and pursue my dreams, I would.
Her feelings were collected as part of a project that I and Felicity Barringer, writer in residence at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, undertook. The aim was to understand the attitudes of young people towards a future in their hometown and in the state. We asked Cox and a few dozen of his classmates where they see each other in five years and what it would take for them to stay or, if they leave, to return to Wyoming.
The students’ responses revealed a genuine love for their community and the sprawling, sparsely populated landscape that is an integral part of life here. Students felt a special appreciation for the familiarity and support of small town life, including what they described as the efforts of teachers and other adults to prepare them for the world beyond Thermopolis, Hot Springs County and Wyoming.
These efforts to prepare young people for a life somewhere far away seem to come in part from a sense of resignation, some students said.
In their communities, where aging populations held power and resisted change, they felt there was an unspoken expectation that children would âlove and give upâ.
Over three years later, a recording with Cox and other young adults across the state reveals that the real-world experience has sharpened many beliefs about a future in Wyoming. Although many love their home countries and want to build a future here, they are concerned about the economy’s contraction and a general resistance to change and inclusiveness.
Cox, 20, now lives and studies arts education in Bozeman, MT, a 4.5 hour drive from his hometown. In 2017, she wanted to become a special effects makeup artist, a vocation she was sure would have to leave Wyoming.
The years since high school graduation have solidified her belief that career opportunities in Wyoming still seem limited to “practice,” she said, like jobs in the volatile industries of the United States. fossil fuel extraction, health, schools and the service sector.
âI love going back to Thermopolis to visit,â Cox recently told WyoFile. âBut I would never back down for good. It is not really a good place for young people; not enough opportunities to support a young lifestyle by trying different careers and meeting new people.
For some Wyoming youth, it’s hard to imagine making a future in the state beyond taking advantage of the Hathaway Scholarship (funded by the state’s vast mineral wealth) to attend the University of Wyoming or the one of the state’s seven community colleges. Economies and populations are growing rapidly in the surrounding states while Wyoming rates are lagging behind. The state is also faced with a fiscal and fiscal regime which makes economic diversity a net loss on its budget.
It does not create a sense of opportunity that many young people seek after leaving high school.
The total number of employees across Wyoming has shown a downward trend since 2008. There were 43,798 fewer employees in fall 2020 (during the pandemic) compared to fall 2008 (a year of energy boom. ), down 11.4%, according to data compiled by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
The trend is worse for young employees in Wyoming; a drop of 30.8% among those 24 and under for the same period. This age group accounted for 18.4% of all working people in 2008 and 14.4% in 2020. Wyoming’s millennial population declined 5.1% from 2014 to 2018 – the third highest rate of decline country, according to data from Workforce Services
âIf Millennials continue to relocate to large metropolitan areas, the state could face a severe labor shortage and faster aging of the population in the near future,â Wenlin Liu wrote, Chief Economist, Wyoming Economic Analysis Division, in the August 2019 edition of Trends.
WyoFile reached out to six young people living in or from Wyoming, most connecting through channels of community activism and civic participation. Several themes emerged, including a sense of a duty to âget involvedâ to help make the kind of changes needed to shape a Wyoming where they can feel secure about their future.
Their efforts include promoting clean energy and taking action to mitigate climate change. They attended city council meetings, followed state legislation, and contacted lawmakers to demand a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, and policies to diversify the state’s economy.
Sometimes, however, those same efforts translate into a sense of hopelessness about the potential to shift Wyoming’s power dynamics and culture.
After graduating from high school in 2020, Casper’s Tanner Ewalt helped organize Black Lives Matter gatherings in his hometown. Although he was inspired to see so many people come out in support, other people intimidated the protesters by brandishing them guns, “because we dared to say, ‘hey, maybe the police should not brutalize citizens, âEwalt said.
âI would love to live in Wyoming and get married and raise kids here,â Ewalt said. âBut I can’t, unless the state goes through a drastic change, very quickly. I don’t foresee that to happen.
Emilee Thomas, 21, of Green River, advocates for women and the LGBTQ community in Wyoming. She devotes her time to environmental causes and advocates for more diverse and sustainable career pathways that can help young Wyoming residents make a living in the state.
But pervasive attitudes against immigrants, especially dismaying in a community with a rich multicultural history, Thomas said, testify to what looks like growing resistance to change and equality. There is also a general contempt for young people who advocate for any suggestion of change that she deems necessary for Wyoming to survive, she said.
One source of discouragement that seems to expose hostility to change in Wyoming, Thomas said, has been disregard for masking, and now vaccines, in the COVID-19 pandemic.
âPeople like to say they like helping each other and being good neighbors,â Thomas said. “But they thought [masking and vaccination] hampered their personal freedoms. So, yeah, I think it’s sweetness and simplicity.
Thomas is not giving up hope for change or planning to leave the state, she said. There is too much at stake, personally and for the family and friends on which she depends for a fulfilling life. Instead, Thomas, like several other young people WyoFile spoke with, decided to restrict his civic efforts in a more direct way in his community.
It is enough, as a young person, to learn more about your own values ââand ambitions, said Thomas, then a person can better build on that to help influence change on a more personal level.
Matt Henry is Researcher-in-Residence at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. He said it was no surprise that students in his classes, who are rooted in environmental justice, tend to be concerned about climate change and the environment. Yet they still span the political spectrum and, like all young people, are still figuring out where they stand on a variety of issues.
When discussing the future of the state and perhaps making a future here, he said, some students are disheartened.
âThey’re really torn because they love Wyoming, and I feel a little bit of guilt,â Henry said. âThey feel like they should stick around and try to make changes or help things get better. But on the other hand, they can feel the desperation to such an extent that they feel like they cannot have an impact.
Wyoming relies on young people to help them solve many really tough challenges, Henry said, but there isn’t a high level of awareness from those in power.
âIt just seems like they don’t feel their voice is being heard or that anyone is really asking them what they want, what kind of future they want to be a part of,â Henry said.
WyoFile is an independent, non-profit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming. Reporting was made possible by a grant from Wyoming Humanities, funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation .