Every year, each of us gets a little older. It’s not our fault, but it is killing us.
The same is true for the state of Maine. We are the oldest state in the country, and every year we keep getting older.
It’s killing us economically, and if we don’t do something about it we will have to accept a future as a low-growth, low-opportunity playground for tourists, alongside increasingly older, sicker and poorer residents.
Every few days we read a story about how it’s getting harder to find police officers, or nurses, or volunteer firefighters, or members of community service clubs, and they all say that recruiters can’t keep up with retirements, meaning fewer people are left to do more of the work.
Next year, Maine is going to elect a new governor, and prospective candidates are putting together their policy papers now.
Here’s some homework for them: Build a campaign around a vision of a healthy Maine economy, where there are strong communities based on good jobs that can support families from birth to old age. All you have to do is make Maine younger.
And don’t worry – you don’t have to figure out how to do it. There’s really only one way. We need to get younger people to move here and start families, and we can’t be picky about where they come from. That means Maine needs to stop thinking of immigration as a problem and start looking at it as an opportunity.
This is not new argument. It was made forcefully in 2014 by former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, in a speech he delivered at Bates College. Even three years later, it’s still worth a read. Last year, the Maine Development Foundation conducted a study that sounded the alarm about what our aging population will mean. It concludes: “The simple truth is we need more people contributing to our economy to their maximum potential, regardless of when or how they got here or where they came from.”
Radical groups like the Maine State Chamber of Commerce agree. “We cannot address our workforce needs without being welcoming to immigrants,” the business group’s president, Dana Connors, said last week.
Our aging population isn’t just one of Maine’s many problems, it is the biggest problem – the one that affects everything people say they care about.
You think taxes are bad now? Try paying them in 2032, when there will be only two people of working age to every one person over age 65.
You think Maine is unfriendly to business? What business would want to move to or expand in a bring-your-own employees state?
Concerned about education? See how well schools react when declining enrollments make it even more expensive to deliver less to fewer children.
Speeches and reports are good, but we need a candidate for governor who can make this case, someone who can go to the former mill towns and look the people in the eye and say, “We need to get younger through immigration, not because it’s good for immigrants but because it’s good for you.”
We are trapped in a downward cycle that won’t fix itself.
Older people have fewer babies, in case you haven’t noticed. That means that as the population ages, it will shrink. And when there are fewer people, there is less demand for goods and services, which means there are fewer jobs and less investment.
We shouldn’t be afraid of people coming from away to compete for our jobs – we should be afraid of them staying away and letting our workforce deteriorate.
We can have low unemployment, as we do now, and still see wages stuck because of slow economic growth. What if the next L.L. Bean can’t get started because there’s no one around to do the work?
There are people in Maine who claim that we have to fight off an invasion of immigrants because they supposedly want to take advantage of us or do us harm. Paul LePage and Donald Trump have both done very well in the state by focusing on the perceived danger and costs associated with immigration. It’s sad that they did best with voters in the parts of Maine where there are the fewest immigrants, which are also the places that could most benefit from an influx of young workers and families.
There are political risks for anyone who challenges a national wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric, but a Maine gubernatorial candidate should take on this fight – not just as “an” issue, but as “the” issue.
It’s not our fault that we got so old, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.
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Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at: