An expert on aging told a group of Maine lawmakers and others this week that 20- and 60-year-olds have more in common than they realize.

“At 20, you’re wondering what you’re going to do next, and that’s what 60-year-olds are asking themselves as well,” Dr. Susan Wehry, a geriatric psychiatrist who leads Vermont’s Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, told House Speaker Mark Eves’ special Round Table on Aging in Maine.

So what is next?

Twenty-year-olds can expect to wait longer today than their parents did to land a job and for their earnings to catch up to what the rest of the workforce is earning. Along the way, they’ll be more likely to move back in with their parents and delay getting married and having kids. As they’re struggling to find work, waiting for their earnings to grow and living with heavy student debt loads, today’s 20-year-olds will miss out on valuable time to start saving for retirement.

Today’s 60-year-olds, meanwhile, are looking forward to, perhaps, several more years in the workforce, high earnings and good health. Many will work longer out of financial necessity, but many others will work longer by choice.

Those are the conclusions of a study released this week by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The analysis has its share of dour news for today’s young people but also some reasons to be hopeful.

Earnings delayed

In 1980, a young worker could expect to reach a wage that put him squarely in the middle of the pack by the time he turned 26. Three decades later, that age has increased to 30.

The change is largely due to an economic transformation that has seen young people join the workforce later but also have fewer options for well-paying jobs starting out. In addition, two recessions since the start of the 21st century have set young people back; economic downturns tend to hit the young the hardest.

Young people entering the workforce today are more educated than any other generation that has preceded them. But a decline in blue-collar jobs has left them with few first jobs that pay well.

Between 1980 and 2010, according to the Georgetown study, the share of 18- to 24-year-olds in middle-wage blue-collar jobs dropped to 19 percent from 35 percent. The corresponding growth has been in the lower-paying service sector, which employed 27 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in 2010, up from 15 percent in 1980.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the prevalence of blue-collar jobs has also dropped since 1980. But the 55- to 59-year-old demographic has moved increasingly into higher-paying managerial and professional jobs.

For young men, ages 18-29, the most common occupations are cook, retail sales clerk and nonconstruction laborer, according to statistics crunched by Georgetown. Young women are most commonly cashiers, waitresses and sales clerks.

Old population, older workforce

Demographics trend old in Maine. By 2030, residents 65 and older will account for more than a quarter — 26 percent — of Maine’s population, according to state population projections, and 20 percent nationwide. In 2001, 14 percent of the state’s population was 65 and older, compared with 12 percent nationally.

As the population has grown older, so has the workforce. Adults today are likely to retire at older ages than their 1980s counterparts, largely the results of improved health and life expectancy, a shift to less physically taxing jobs and economic factors such as the disappearance of pensions that discourage workers from working past the age when benefits kick in.

In 2000, 13.4 percent of Mainers 65 and older were considered to be part of the labor force, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That percentage jumped to 18.8 in 2012. The participation rate also grew among 55- to 64-year-olds, to 65.2 percent from 59.9 percent.

While older workers who lose jobs face a tough road to getting hired again, they generally have low unemployment in Maine. Labor force participants 65 and older had 7.1 percent unemployment in 2012, up from 3.6 percent in 2000. Among Maine’s 55- to 64-year-olds, unemployment was 4.9 percent in 2012, up from 2.7 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, fewer of the state’s younger adults are participating in the workforce, while their unemployment rates have risen. In 2000, 76.2 percent of 20- to 24-year-old Mainers were labor force participants; that figure dropped to 67.2 percent in 2012. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the participation rate dropped to 72.9 percent from 84.1 percent.

In 2000, 20- to 24-year-olds in Maine had 6.7 percent unemployment. That rate jumped to 12.3 percent in 2012. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, unemployment jumped to 9.5 percent from 3 percent. At both ends of the age spectrum, unemployment rates in Maine today are lower among females than males.

Older, working and crowding out young?

As older people stay in the workforce, are they crowding out young adults trying to gain a foothold?

Not exactly, according to the Georgetown study’s authors. Even as more older people work, many are still retiring and leaving behind job openings. And since those reaching retirement age are from the enormous Baby Boom generation, that’s more job openings than ever from retirements.

“We have a lot of people on the verge of aging out of the labor force,” said Glenn Mills, chief economist with the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. “Right now, there are some challenges for young people without experience getting jobs. That will be alleviated over time.”

Ultimately, Maine’s demographics could favor young workers. Their wages could rise with fewer young people available to fill many jobs left open by retirees.

Matthew Stone is the BDN opinion page editor.