AUGUSTA — A former state economist painted a bleak portrait of Maine’s future Tuesday at a gathering to discuss the profound social, economic and cultural changes that will be caused by the rapid aging of the state’s population.
Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, said labor costs will skyrocket if the state’s leaders fail to entice more young people to move here.
“We are looking down the throat of a very different Maine,” said Colgan, a former state economist. “No society has gone through what we’re about to go through.”
About 70 government and community leaders turned out for the first in a series of roundtable talks that will be led this fall by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in hopes of producing legislative action next year.
Lawmakers and other state officials will confront powerful demographic forces that will demand fundamental changes in systems of health care, social services, transportation and caregiving.
Colgan said the situation “requires a radical rethinking of many of the things we are doing.” He said institutions across the United States are “woefully ill-equipped” to overcome the inertia that has prevented real action so far.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is examining the impacts of the rapid aging of Maine’s population in an ongoing special series, “The challenge of our age,” which has found that the state isn’t taking good care of its seniors now and isn’t prepared for what’s ahead.
Maine’s median age — 43.5 years — is the highest in the United States, in part because the state has a dwindling younger population, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s proportion of people age 65 and older — 17 percent — is second only to Florida’s 18.2 percent.
Maine has the nation’s highest proportion of baby boomers — 29 percent of its 1.3 million residents were born in the period from 1946 to 1964 — and they are turning 65 at a rate of 18,250 a year, according to AARP Maine.
By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older, magnifying the already serious challenges facing seniors and their communities. That will put Maine on the crest of a worldwide aging trend that’s already contributing to economic, social and political instability across the globe.
In Maine, the trend is exposing shortages in transportation, housing, health care, long-term care, family caregiver support and legal protections against elder abuse that threaten to cripple the state economically and socially if not addressed soon.
The impact on the job market and business community could be especially acute, Colgan said. Maine must attract 5,000 to 10,000 new workers annually through 2030 just to offset the number of baby boomers who are retiring each year.
“We’ve got to get young people to move to Maine,” he said. “We have to do more than just keep our kids here. … It’s not enough (to replace people who are retiring) because not enough of them were born here.”
If the state fails to attract enough young people, wages will rise as employers are forced to recruit workers from outside Maine, Colgan said.
“Rising wages must be offset by rising productivity or we’ll become less competitive in the global marketplace,” he said.
To stem the trend, Maine’s workforce must be better educated and more skilled, and that burden cannot be left to the public education system alone, Colgan said.
“Training in the workplace isn’t happening,” Colgan said, noting that public and private employers have greatly reduced or eliminated employee training programs in recent years. At the same time, pressure on the public education system to better train workers has increased.
“Everybody needs to see the challenges of an aging population as a whole, recognize their part in it and work together to address it,” Colgan said.
Rep. Eves echoed Colgan’s concerns during a break in the three-hour meeting at the Augusta Civic Center.
“If we do nothing, our labor costs are going to be very high relative to the rest of the country,” Eves said.
However, he said, Maine’s rapidly aging population challenges every facet of living in the state, including housing, transportation, health care and long-term care. It also requires lawmakers and others to seek ways to make communities more livable for people of all ages, not just people older than 65.
Rather than leave state agencies to handle the challenges alone, community leaders across Maine must work together to develop new approaches and solutions, Eves said. If that happens, Maine could be a model for the rest of the nation and the world.
“I think timing is everything and interest is there,” Eves said. “To do nothing is no longer the solution.”
The series of roundtable talks is being sponsored by the independent Maine Council on Aging and the John T. Gorman Foundation. The council includes the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, AARP Maine and the Alzheimer’s Association Maine Chapter. Additional meetings are scheduled for Oct. 1, 15 and 29.
The discussion at the initial meeting included about 30 state and municipal officials, business leaders and representatives of nonprofits. In the audience were about 40 others interested in the topic.
Participants raised a variety of concerns, from a growing need for more flexible long-term care options to shortages in accessible and affordable senior housing and transportation. They also noted that while many seniors are retiring to Maine, some Maine seniors are moving to other states, in part because the states have no income tax.
Rick Vail, president and chief executive officer of Mechanics Savings Bank in Auburn, praised the roundtable meeting for bringing together a diverse group of people interested in aging issues that face the state. He said it was a positive first step in what should be a sustained, deliberate effort.
“It’s nice to identify the issues,” said Vail, who is president of the Maine Bankers Association. “It’s always harder to identify the solutions.”
Vail described Maine as a large, rural, poor state where community problems “don’t just belong to the public sector.” He said the state must develop coordinated public-private partnerships to address issues of aging in manageable, “bite-size” pieces that will build momentum for long-term success.
He said a trend toward revitalizing urban centers may offer opportunities to solve housing, transportation and economic development challenges, as long as urban centers remain economically diverse.
“I hope (information gathered at the roundtable talks) turns into something attainable,” Vail said.
Barbara Edmond, president of the Maine Philanthropy Center, was another participant Tuesday.
In explaining her concerns about aging in Maine, Edmond noted that a 69-year-old family member recently died after dealing with the added emotional and financial stress of caring for an 80-year-old spouse who has Alzheimer’s disease.
Nearly one in seven Maine seniors will be claimed by Alzheimer’s disease. Between now and 2020, the number of Alzheimer’s cases in Maine will rise from 37,000 to 53,000 — a 43 percent increase that will fuel a need for more caregivers, more specialized housing and more health care and social services.
“The time is now, the issue is real and we need to do something about it,” Edmond said.
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: