EDITORIALS

Maine, in search of the sweet spot of demographics

Lucy LeBel (right), 95, enjoys her dinner and good company in April 2009 at Freese's Assisted Living in Bangor.
Lucy LeBel (right), 95, enjoys her dinner and good company in April 2009 at Freese's Assisted Living in Bangor. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 30, 2011, at 8:22 p.m.

Readers of a certain age may remember the 1972 Aretha Franklin song and album titled “Young, Gifted and Black.” Maine, which, demographically speaking, is almost of a certain age, might be described as old, undereducated and white.

The recently released census data about Maine gives state and local leaders a stark look at the challenges our demographics pose in growing the economy. But too often, Maine is described too simply. The state is said to be the oldest in the nation, but there is a bit more nuance to that designation which should be understood.

Maine’s median age — that is, the age at which half the state’s 1.3 million people are older and half are younger — is 42.7. Compared to the national average median of 36.9, we’re not quite as old as many thought, right? In fact, at 42 we just might still be able to work circles around those 36-year-olds.

One popular image of our aging state is of retirees selling their homes in the southern New England or mid-Atlantic states and moving to Maine. Here, they are able to buy homes with more land or water views, renovate them and still pocket some money from the sale elsewhere. They invest in the local economy, patronize local businesses and don’t put children into the school system.

Another image of aging Maine is of the native-born resident in declining health, struggling to maintain the old homestead on limited income while drawing more and more government aid.

Yes, a substantial chunk — 15.9 percent — of Maine’s population is 65 or older. That’s higher than the national 13 percent. Florida has the highest percentage of 65-plus (about 17 percent), and Pennsylvania and West Virginia join Maine in the 15 percent range.

If there is a sweet spot for the age of those who might start businesses or become valuable employees, it probably is the 25-44 age group. For Maine, 23.8 percent of the population falls into this segment (25-29, 5.5 percent; 30-34, 5.4 percent; 35-39, 6 percent; 40-44, 6.9 percent).

Ireland, one of several European Union nations especially hard hit by the recession, is seeing many of its 25- to 44-year-olds flee. The Irish government released information showing that 110 Irish citizens are leaving the country daily, and the majority of the citizens fleeing are in the 25- to 44-year-old age group. These are the “future engineers, entrepreneurs and labor which would help to lead Ireland out of the current economic morass,” a blogger noted.

Much has been written about young people leaving Maine for greener economic pastures, but

most troubling is the state’s virtually stagnant population. In the 2000-2010 years, Maine grew by just 4.2 percent. That’s less than half a percent per year.

While ethnic diversity is desirable because it contributes to cultural richness, there are other reasons for hoping Maine becomes less white. Currently, 95.2 percent of Mainers identify as white; 1.2 percent identify as African-American; and 2.6 percent identify as Hispanic. Hispanic couples, it turns out, have more children than white couples.

On education, Maine is unequivocally weak. A little over a quarter of the population holds four-year college degrees (about 37 percent hold at least a two-year degree).

The 2010 census is a treasure chest of data that should help us see ourselves clearly and accurately. That self-assessment should spark innovative thinking at the State House and elsewhere.

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