Gov. Glenn Youngkin has the opportunity to deliver the most important speech of his term – if he chooses to.
Some might think a governor’s most important speech is his inaugural address. In the case of Linwood Holton in 1970 – who declared “the era of defiance is behind us” – it was. For most other governors, though, their inaugural addresses are quite forgettable.
Others might think a governor’s most important speech will be one of their State of the Commonwealth addresses, or perhaps the talk accompanying the release of their budget. All those are surely important at the time, but how many of us can remember now?
No, Youngkin’s opportunity to deliver a memorable speech – not just memorable but important, too – comes when he delivers the commencement address at Virginia Tech on May 13.
Tech is politically savvy: Ever since Doug Wilder in 1990, the school has invited the new governor in his first year, when presumably he’s at the height of his powers – and has most of his term left in which to do good things for the school. Even before that, the school routinely had governors come to speak, just not always in their first year. Tech has an almost unbroken line of gubernatorial commencement speakers going back to Albertis Harrison in 1965. The only exception was Mills Godwin, in his second term, but Godwin did speak there during his first term – so Youngkin follows in a long line of Virginia governors addressing graduating Hokies.
All those were forgettable, though, except for one. Gerald Baliles in 1987 delivered what is likely the most famous gubernatorial commencement address of all time. Back then Tech was being rocked by an athletic scandal. Baliles used the occasion to rebuke the board of visitors about valuing sports over academics and vowed to replace board members if they didn’t soon clean up the mess. Some considered this exactly what needed to be said – Baliles couldn’t well ignore the scandal while delivering some happy words to graduates. Others considered this quite inappropriate – why did he ruin graduates’ special day by talking about politics? Opinions still vary, but, appropriate or otherwise, that speech helped define Baliles’ legacy.
Fortunately, Youngkin doesn’t have anything like that to talk about now. Still, this could be one of the most important speeches Youngkin will make as governor if he wants it to be.
Youngkin probably has people to write speeches for him, but just in case he wants to privatize that duty the way he has one of his staff members, I’ll offer up some thoughts. Bonus: These are things that other graduation speakers can make use of, too.
First, a demographic observation. If someone is talking to a high school graduation class, they’re mostly talking to 18-year-olds. This will make you feel old: All those 18-year-olds were born about 2004, so several years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They are as far removed from that traumatizing event as people in 1962 were from Pearl Harbor. If someone is speaking to a four-year college class, let’s say there are probably a lot of 22-year-olds. They would have been born before Sept. 11 but have no memory of it. Community college graduates are older – the average community college academic student is 26; for short-term credentials programs, 36. Even those 26-year-olds, though, would have been infants at the time that the towers came down. They also all grew up as digital natives. They may have more to teach the rest of us about the world than we have to tell them. Just ask anyone who has ever had to turn to one of their children or grandchildren to fix their computer. Perhaps our graduation speakers ought to do more listening than speaking.
That’s not the tradition, though, so back to the original question: What should Youngkin tell the Virginia Tech graduates? Or other speakers tell other graduates?
Here’s what Youngkin could do: He should tell graduates to stay in Virginia. This is a very different message than the usual “go off and change the world” message. We only want these graduates to go so far, geographically speaking. Virginia faces a little-recognized demographic challenge: Since 2013, more people are moving out of Virginia than into the state. I know that Youngkin knows this because he mentioned it during his campaign. It’s a trend the general public doesn’t see but those who pay close attention to the Virginia economy are starting to. I know it came up during a recent meeting of the state board of the GO Virginia economic development group. The biggest single group moving out of Virginia are those who are 45 to 54, according to Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. That suggests many of those are families who are taking kids out of state with them.
We can infer something from that age range: These are people who have been in the workplace for a while and, for whatever reason, found a better opportunity in some other state.
We also know something else: The localities that are losing the most people aren’t in rural areas, they’re in Northern Virginia. I went over those figures in an earlier column. Fairfax County has been seeing net out-migration for a long time but that figure has been covered up by births exceeding both deaths and net out-migration. Now the birth rate has fallen so much that, since 2018, Fairfax County – yes, Fairfax County – has been losing total population. If this continues, it would be a historic turnaround that would have profound implications for almost everything in Virginia – tax collections being one of the most obvious. The last census in which Fairfax lost population was in 1830. It’s thought that one of the reasons Northern Virginia is now losing population is because housing prices have risen so much that people are being priced out of the market, particularly younger people.
That brings us to one other thing we know: The number of young adults moving out of state has fallen – the 26 to 35 cohort used to be the biggest out-migration cohort, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Still, we have a deficit and that’s not a good thing. That age 26 to 35 cohort is the prime age to marry and start a family, which means Virginia isn’t simply losing people, it’s losing the potential of future Virginians. In most Virginia localities, deaths now outnumber births. This is one of the reasons why. In most Virginia localities, the biggest economic challenge is a demographic one: They need more young adults. Whether this is because other states are doing a better job of offering economic opportunity, or whether Northern Virginia has simply gotten so expensive that it’s driven people out, the net out-migration – particularly among that age cohort – is a bad thing and Youngkin is right to be worried about it.
And then there’s this: In 2019 alone Virginia had 8,000 more college graduates moving out of the state than moving in, Lombard says. If you’re Youngkin, that’s the figure that ought to alarm you and that’s why I think this commencement address at Virginia Tech could be one of the most important he’ll give. He could deliver a bland commencement speech that will be forgotten by the time graduates throw their mortar boards in the air. He could deliver a commencement speech that will resonate far beyond Lane Stadium, perhaps for years to come.
Youngkin says he wants a stronger Virginia economy. Some Democrats grouse that Virginia’s economy had been going pretty well before he came along, but let’s not get into that. If Virginia’s economy is going to be strong in the future, we need to reverse those demographic outflows (which, curiously, I’ve only heard Republicans talk about). And if Virginia’s economy is going to be strong in the future, Virginia Tech is clearly going to play a big part in that, be it through the research it’s doing in Blacksburg or the graduates it’s sending out into the world. Youngkin may think he’s at Tech to impart wisdom and advice to those graduates. He’s not. He’s there to persuade as many of those graduates as possible to stay in the state. Whether he realizes it or not, he needs to be there on a recruitment mission. The success of his administration – and the success of gubernatorial administrations yet to come – depends upon it.