Much has been made in recent years of Maine’s status as a graying state. Our population has been growing slowly and, as measured by median age – just over 46 years – is the nation’s oldest state.

Some decry this trend as a death knell for our economy. If we can’t attract more people and grow more rapidly, they say, we won’t be able to maintain our standard of living.

Others say, what’s the big deal? We really don’t want to grow more rapidly. We don’t want to become like the rest of the country. Let’s just keep growing slowly and keep things the same. We like Maine the way it is – the way life should be. Let’s just adapt to slow growth.

In light of these two points of view, it’s interesting to look at recent trends in population, employment and earnings growth to see what light they shed on this “why worry about growth” debate.

Using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the overall population of the U.S. between 2008 and 2013 – the era of the Great Recession – grew by 4 percent.

Over this same period, Washington, D.C., and North Dakota grew the most, 11.4 percent and 10.0 percent, respectively – evidence of the boom in government and oil over this period. Maine’s population, in contrast, fell by 0.2 percent, ranking it 49th among the 50 states plus D.C. Only Rhode Island and Michigan “grew” more slowly.

How, then, does this demographic “growth” compare to economic growth? Between 2010 and 2012, Maine’s employment grew by 1.3 percent. This left us far behind the overall U.S. rate of 3.8 percent and ranked us 51st among all states plus D.C.

How about when we look at what that employment produced – the money earned by workers residing in Maine? Over the 2010 to 2013 period, total earnings for the U.S. as a whole increased 13 percent. In Maine for the same period, total earnings increased just 8.2 percent, ranking us 50th among the states plus D.C.

But what if we focus not on total population, employment and earnings, but on the average per worker. Isn’t that a better measure of our “real” economic well-being?

Well, maybe. Between 2010 and 2012, average earnings per employed resident for the U.S. as a whole increased 6.8 percent – from $46,300 to $49,400. In Maine over the same period, the increase was 5.4 percent, bringing us from $38,200 to $40,200. This growth put us 40th on the 51-point ranking scale but still meant that, relative to the national average, we dropped from 82 percent to 81 percent, thus falling slightly behind in the overall measure of economic prosperity at least to the extent that earnings per resident worker measures economic well-being.

Finally, how about that ultimate measure for those unconcerned with slow or even negative population growth: the ratio of employment to population? Here, indeed, Maine shows a marked difference. Between 2008 and 2013, the ratio of employed workers to total population fell by 3.1 percent for the nation as a whole.

Indeed, only two states– North Dakota and New York (for opposite reasons) – saw that ratio rise over this period. For Maine, the decrease was only negative 2.8 percent, ranking us 23rd among all the states and D.C. In other words, when we match our slow population growth with our slow employment growth and compare the resultant ratio to national trends, we don’t look so bad. Isn’t that the ultimate rationale of the “no growth, keep Maine the same” camp, especially if we’re content to live on below-average earnings per worker?

Yes, that is true, but only as long as all of those working today continue working tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Is that the future to which they aspire? We’ll have to wait and see, as those tomorrows creep on in their petty pace.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]