I am often accused of being the prophet of doom regarding the demographic winter facing our state. I’m the dismal scientist in reverse – worried not about being engulfed by too many mouths to feed, but by too many seniors who don’t work and don’t create more mouths to feed. “We are,” one retired reader retorted, “far from being a ‘drag’ on the economy, but a big boost in terms of consumer spending.”

Here again, I’m afraid, “either-or” thinking drives us away from the idea of balance. I’m not “against” old people. Nor do I dismiss their positive impacts on our economy or want to discourage them from retiring to Maine. I simply don’t believe that they alone can bring our economy back to a sustainable balance.

Consider for a moment the evidence from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Consumer Expenditure Survey. The average annual income for U.S. households headed by someone 65 years of age or older in 2013 (the latest data available) was $45,157. This was only 71 percent of the all-consumer average of $63,784. But if we adjust for after-tax income, the elderly-household-to-all-households ratio rises to 74 percent. And if we adjust not to income but to actual consumption spending, the ratio rises to 81 percent: $41,403 to $51,100. And, finally, if we adjust for household size – the average elderly household has 1.8 people, while the overall average household has 2.5 people – the elderly to all households ratio jumps to 113 percent. In other words, the average elderly person spends more ($23,000 per year) than the overall average person ($20,440).

There you have it. Elderly households don’t pay as much in taxes, don’t save as much and live in smaller household units. They’re the retailers’ dream, spending machines unburdened by the economically bothersome nuisances of children, paying for public services and saving for the future. What more could a society whose motto is “When in doubt, go shopping!” want? Let’s bring in some more.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not just total spending that shapes an economy, but spending on what. Elderly households spend relatively less on housing, transportation and even entertainment (other than reading) than the average household and vastly more on health care. For obvious reasons, the time perspective of elderly households colors their consumption patterns. They spend relatively less on furniture and relatively more on household supplies. Even within the realm of health care, they exhibit an atypical pattern, spending relatively more for drugs, medical supplies and insurance and relatively less for actual medical services. And, finally, they are far more generous, giving 40 percent more in cash contributions than the average household – in fact nearly double the all-consumers average when considered on a per person basis.

So my point here is neither to praise nor to condemn “the elderly” as either the salvation of or the curse on Maine’s economy. It is, rather, to say that an economy is inevitably shaped by the attitudes, values and spending patterns of those segments that are growing more rapidly.

We must come to see our economy not as a giant ship that is difficult to steer but can, with a technically competent captain and crew, be brought to some chosen course. We must see it, rather, as an organic, evolving organism. Our economy’s operating procedures do not exist in a published manual. They are, instead, something we must compose ourselves as we continue with watchful eyes on our journey.

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

[email protected]