Let me make one thing entirely clear. I have nothing against retirees. Some of my best friends are retirees. Hardly a day goes by that someone in my family or among my list of former classmates and current or former colleagues doesn’t become one. It is my ardent hope one day to join them in that blessed state.
While it hardly ends the heartaches and natural shocks that flesh is heir to, retirement is nevertheless a consummation devoutly to be wished.
And I am glad many retirees find Maine a desirable place to plant and grow their gardens. Almost single-handedly, retirees or near-retirees “from away” have maintained property values in my neighborhood by buying up the houses put on the market by now-departed former neighbors.
I can take no credit for the catchy headline “Demographic Meteorite” (which one close reader tells me is astronomically incorrect anyway) that has been used to draw attention to my recent columns on this subject. I do not view the migration of retirees to Maine to be a cataclysm requiring the heroic attention of Brad Pitt or Denzel Washington.
My only point in calling attention to Maine’s nation-leading trend toward a more elderly population is that the evidence thus far does not indicate that the spending in Maine of this cohort is sufficient to offset the employment declines of our traditional economic base of food-, forest- and fish-based economic activities.
In a word, I believe that Maine needs more than retirees to maintain and attract the 24- to 64-year-old people we need to become a more demographically sustainable and economically dynamic community.
That said, I also think that retirees can and do contribute more to this process than generating demand for shuffleboard sticks and home health workers. Just last week, I received a request from the president of the MIT Club of Maine, which has a member who is mentoring a large group of high school advanced placement physics students.
While I certainly could offer no assistance with the physics, I did point him in the direction of the organizers of Project Login and several representatives of companies in Maine interested in helping improve our Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, education efforts.
In addition, being part of a network of grandparents who share the exhausting but exhilarating task of trying to keep up with an energetic 18-month-old boy and who provide summer homes for a band of city-bound grandchildren of all ages, I have become acutely aware of the joys, challenges and beneficial effects of providing community support for young parents who are helping the Maine economy by building work here rather than taking jobs “away.”
In a more formal way, the Promise Neighborhoods project in the midcoast seeks to provide preschool experiences for children less blessed with a network of family connections. The Youth Building Alternatives program run by LearningWorks in Portland helps at-risk 16- to 24-year-olds find nontraditional ways of succeeding at basic high school education.
These examples illustrate the only way Maine’s economy will increase its growth rate and regain its demographic balance — by improving the quality, quantity and extent of linkages between the process of learning and the process of earning a living.
The successful economy of the 21st century will provide all children — from birth through self-supporting employment — a dense network of learning/working opportunities. And what network really means is human relationships — child to parent, child to extended family, child to teacher, child to community volunteer.
Helping traditional institutions expand the range of learning opportunities now threatened by the fiscal constraints of a slow-growth economy is the true key to the future of the Maine economy.
To the extent that Maine’s influx of retirees become involved in this most fundamental element of community building, they may well be the catalyst for turning our economy around and thus for having an impact far beyond and invisible to the purely commercial measures that form the basis of most economic analysis.
Charles Lawton is Chief Economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at: