It’s been a perennial worry in Maine for decades, maybe even longer: our young people are leaving the state for greener, more prosperous pastures to the south and west. And worse, it’s not just some of those in their 20s making the leap; it tends to be those with college educations, with skills, ambition and dreams. In short, the best and brightest.

Maine, the state with the highest median age—at 43.5, up from 43.2 in 2011, topping even Florida—can ill-afford to have this trend continue. Those in their 20s join businesses and non-profits and climb the career ladder, helping such organizations grow. They start their own businesses. They marry and have kids. They buy houses, cars and other goods and services that boost the local economy, far more than those in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Elected officials and other policymakers have wrung their hands over the so-called brain drain, and correctly ask themselves what needs to be done to stem the youth exodus.

One obvious fix is boosting access to broadband Internet. Maine was recently ranked 49th among the 50 states. Reliable cell phone service also needs to be more widely available.

Another consideration is college loan debt. The non-profit Opportunity Maine provides a mechanism through which most if not all of college loan payments are reimbursed through a state income tax credit, if the claimant is a Maine resident. But that benefit applies only to those who attended Maine post-secondary institutions. It should be extended to all college graduates living in Maine.

Public transportation around the far-flung corners of our state also could be improved.

But another way to crack this nut is to ask those who stay a simple question: Why? Or, if it’s not a permanent decision, why stay, at least for now?

The Working Waterfront has done just that over the last year. We’ve published a series of profiles of island residents in their 20s, seeking to understand what island life offers them. And of course, keeping the 20-something co-hort on a Maine island is even more difficult than keeping that group in mainland communities.

Some of our subjects were candid in saying they didn’t know what they would do next year; perhaps, they’d ditch island life for the excitement of a big city. Others were content, even happy, at the prospect of staying forever on their island.

Some observations:

It’s clear the islands offer very different options, depending on location. The Cranberrys, with no regular car ferry, limit employment options. Vinalhaven, with a year-round population of 1,200, is comparable to other Knox County towns like Friendship, Hope, Appleton and Cushing, and functions more like a mainland community. And the Casco Bay islands are, to some degree, suburbs of Portland, offering all the economic and cultural assets of that city.

Lastly, most of our subjects recognized that their island stay may be fleeting out of economic necessity, but that their hearts remain anchored there, even if they don’t return until their retirement years. Polishing and promoting both the harsh realities and rich blessings that island life and Maine life offer may land us a different kind of best and brightest, a co-hort fit to carry our unique way of life into the future.