By Walter W. Woodward, Spring 2014 Volume 12 Number 2
Recent history has not gone easy on Connecticut. The state whose innovation and manufacturing ingenuity made it a leader in the industrial revolution, has, in recent decades, found more to celebrate in historic achievements than future prospects. Since the 1990s, the Land of Steady Habits has been in steady economic decline. We have had the worst job creation record of any state—with fewer people working here today than 20 years ago. Those workers’ incomes have declined, while poverty has increased, according to data published in April 2013 by the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis. Worst of all, Connecticut’s young adults, the lifeblood of our future, are leaving the state in droves. Since 2000, Connecticut has lost a higher percentage of its 25-to-34-year-old population than any other state, according to a 2009 report from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
As sobering as these statistics are, history shows us this is not the first time Connecticut has faced such a crisis. Two hundred years ago, in the 18-teens, Connecticut endured an astonishingly similar period of economic decline and outmigration of its youth. From Killingsworth to Coventry, Farmington to Lebanon, town after town lamented the loss of its younger generation, as a declining state economy pushed the rising generation toward new and better opportunities in places such as Ohio’s Western Reserve, as noted in Voices of the New Republic: Connecticut Towns 1800-1932, Vol. 1 (CAAS, 2003). Although the root causes of the crisis—population increases and a shortage of available farmland—were different then than now, the need to address them was just as strong. Governor Oliver Wolcott told the Connecticut Assembly in 1817 that addressing the “numerous emigrations of our industrious and enterprising young men, is by far the most important subject which can engage our attention.”
Fortunately, our forebears found revolutionary solutions to our state’s extended early 19th-century decline. The American system of manufacture and the development of the machine tool industry transformed a declining state into the envy of the world within 50 years. Entrepreneurs such as Colt, Whitney, Root, and Pope, not infrequently creating transformative innovations with the help of government contracts, themselves became magnets of innovation, while the Connecticut Yankee became a world-renowned icon of revolutionary invention.
Connecticut in the 20-teens is betting on similar revolutionary solutions. The government-supported BioScience Connecticut Initiative that attracted the biogenetics leader Jackson Labs to the state, combined with the state’s massive Next Generation investment at the University of Connecticut focused on developing research capacities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, are both aimed at giving Connecticut the resources needed to play a central and even revolutionary role in the scientific and medical advances of the future, just as we did in the industrial revolution of the 1800s.
Will Connecticut, through a new breed of innovators supported by government investment, prove that our state is what we proclaim it to be . . . Still Revolutionary? Time, and perhaps children living in the next town over, will tell.