The story of Maine’s aging and stagnant population is well known. We’re the oldest state in the nation, and that is creating enormous problems for our economy and our future.
Don’t get me wrong: Some of my best friends are old people, though few will admit it. But old people, with some notable exceptions, aren’t starting new businesses, taking risks on new products and growing tomorrow’s jobs.
Why we’re getting older, as a state, isn’t all that complicated. Young people have been leaving for decades, first abandoning northern and western Maine to come to southern Maine, and then too often continuing further south in search of jobs and an easier life.
As they go, they take their talent and energy and positive spirit with them. There aren’t enough good jobs to keep them here.
Growing economies are almost always associated with people coming in rather than leaving. Some are attracted by jobs and others come to create them.
My grandfather drove a cart across the mountains from Quebec because there were jobs here. Like other immigrant waves of Italians, Irish or African Americans, they brought a willingness to work hard and a burning desire to succeed.
Compared to those waves of immigrants, today’s influx is a small trickle.
The painful irony in all this is that Maine is a place where lots of people would like to live, including not only people who are willing to work their way up from the bottom of the ladder but also successful people from around the country who visit here during the summer. They love the slower pace, the friendly people, the small communities and the natural beauty of Maine.
Many would relocate their families and their companies, if they could, but it isn’t at all clear that they’re welcome.
Some come anyway and many hold on and put down roots. But far too many are swept back out by the strong currents of a weak economy and an indifferent welcome.
Many Mainers say that we need a vision and a plan for Maine’s economy, which is absolutely right. But getting from here to there requires more than a map, it also requires an optimistic attitude and the will to get started, and to complete the journey.
We’re like the explorer who must travel 100 miles by foot, over mountains and across rushing cold streams, to get to his destination. If his mind is filled with the idea that he can’t succeed and he’ll never get there, then he won’t, even with the best map.
When it comes to the next economy in Maine, we are, in many ways, our own worst enemy. We have strongly-held attitudes that have become the mountains and rivers that block our way to prosperity. Foremost among them: pessimism, parochialism and indecision.
We’re conflicted about the idea of growth. How can we remain who we are and still grow? How do we change without changing?
We’re also deeply ambivalent about making room for more people, and especially those dreaded people from away. We like them OK in the summer and then applaud their fall departure. We love the money they bring but secretly wish they could simply mail it in.
All of this has been the foundation of Maine humor since before Bert and I. But as the state ages and people leave, the jokes aren’t quite as funny as they used to be.
The simple fact about the next Maine economy is that it will grow once we resolve what we want to do and get out of our own way. One thing to resolve is this: Prosperity cannot happen without a lot of new people.
In particular, we need young and skilled people from around the country and the world who will come to Maine to build new businesses and rebuild communities. That isn’t to say that we don’t have tons of talent and motivation in Maine. But the days when we could go it alone, and simply build from within, are not just fading, they’re gone.
We have to be ready to throw open the doors to Maine and have enough confidence to know that new people won’t come here hell-bent on destroying the place, but just the opposite. They’ll invigorate the economy and enliven our communities. They’ll embrace what we love and add to it.
In the end, they won’t change the granite character of Maine. They’ll be changed by it.
Alan Caron is a principal of the Caron & Egan Consulting Group, which works with companies, governments and non-profits to plan and achieve goals and to more effectively collaborate. He also serves as the president of Envision Maine, a non-partisan organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at: