It has become commonplace, now even a cliché, to say that Maine must get younger and that we must create more jobs, both to keep our young people and to attract those from other states and countries, if we are to escape the social and fiscal consequences of demographic imbalance. Easy to say, but hard to do.

It is interesting, therefore, to look at the demographics of the labor market to see how we’ve been doing over the past several years – a period of slow but gradually accelerating employment growth, if you believe the Federal Reserve.

According to the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics database – a joint program of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of the Census – the median age of all employees of private businesses in Maine in 2014 was 41.7 years.

To see how Maine’s private businesses are responding to the forces of an aging population, we need to compare this overall median age to the median ages of the sources of change in the employment pool – new hires, recalls and separations.

“New hires,” as the term implies, are workers at a business in a given quarter who did not work at that business in the previous quarter.

“Recalls” are workers at a business in a given quarter who did not work at that business in the previous quarter but did work there for three prior quarters.

“Separations” are workers who did work at a given business in prior quarters but do not currently work there. These include both workers laid off and workers who left voluntarily, whether to take another job, leave the labor force temporarily or retire.

Together, these three elements of change in the labor force provide some useful information about whether we are getting younger.

At first blush, the data seem to indicate positive change. The median age of new hires in 2014 was 30.9 years. The median age of recalls was 38.2 years, and the median age of separations was 33 years. A higher proportion of the churn in the labor market is taking place in younger age cohorts. This is natural, as new entrants into the market take first jobs, move to others and work to establish careers.

It is not, however, necessarily a sign that our workforce is getting younger. Indeed, our overall median age of 41.7 years in 2014 is up slightly from 2011, when it was 41.5. This is certainly not a major change. But neither is it “getting younger.”

To understand how churn in the job market is not producing a younger labor force, it is necessary to look more carefully at these components of change.

First and foremost, Maine’s churn in the context of the overall labor force amounts to little more than ripples on the surface of a pond. Over the past four years, net job gain (the sum of new hires plus recalls less separations) has ranged from a low of 2,600 to a high of 4,100. These amount to 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent of the private employment total, which grew from 563,000 to 581,000 over the period.

In addition, the share of all new hires that was accounted for by the 14-to-34 age cohort remained virtually stable at just over 60 percent of all new hires. (This cohort includes those 14 to 17 who have jobs – most, presumably, part time while in school.)

In short, all that churn of relatively young workers has barely made a dent in the inevitable, year-to-year aging of the overall labor force. The median age of Maine’s private-sector workforce has kept creeping up slowly over the past four years, because the addition of new young workers has not been large enough to outweigh the inevitable effects of the aging of the far larger group of existing older workers. Indeed, since the second quarter of 2013, the number of new hires in the 14-to-34 age cohort has grown more slowly than the overall rate of new hires.

Whatever the reason for this slowdown – inadequate education and training, slowing demand or reluctance to offer higher wages – its consequences are dire. If we do not accelerate the creation of job opportunities for young people starting their working lives, we will suffer the economic consequences over the coming decade.

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

[email protected]

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