There is often a narrative of doom and gloom surrounding Maine’s aging population, and with good reason. Maine remains the oldest state in the country, with a median age over 44 years.
“We’ve been first in that measure for a long time,” Maine State Economist Amanda Rector said at an event held last week by the BDN editorial board. “We are now actually also first on another measure, which is the percent of the population age 65 and older. Florida had been ahead of us for a long time, and we have now surpassed Florida on that particular measure. We’re first in a couple of different respects, and not in a position that we would like to be in. One of the times when first is not necessarily best.”
However, Rector and two other state and local officials offered some optimism about Maine’s population at the event, while still acknowledging many of the hurdles that persist as Maine looks to grow a skilled workforce as the average age of its population continues to rise.
Rector pointed to the fact that, while the state population is aging and deaths outnumber births, we are still seeing slight population growth. That’s because there are “considerably more people” who are are moving to Maine, known from a demographic perspective as in-migration, rather than moving away from the state.
She pointed to information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which shows positive migration trends for Maine, particularly in younger age groups.
Rector said that while much of the recent growth has been concentrated around the greater Portland area, she sees signs in the data that it’s starting to spread farther across the state.
“From a city perspective, we have had a lot of job growth,” Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow added at the event. “One of the things that we’re seeing is that the skillsets don’t naturally meet up with some of the jobs that we’re seeing.”
Addressing this disconnect between jobs available and skills found in the existing workforce — commonly referred to as the “skills gap” and often cited by members of the business community as a persistent challenges here in Maine — is just one part of the effort to improve Maine’s demographic trends and grow our economy.
Another piece of the puzzle, as Conlow alluded to, is making Maine communities more age-friendly for an increasingly older population.
“That’s really just about making a city a really great place to live. It’s about walkability, it’s about accessibility, it’s about transit, it’s about having places for people to go and overcome social isolation.”
Conlow’s point — that making a city or town a better place for people to age — really makes it better for the entire community.
Other factors, such as access to affordable housing, health care and high speed broadband are also critical to making our communities more navigable for an aging population and attracting new workers to the state.
Many of the challenges that Maine faces in these areas have existed for years, and will not be solved overnight or by single municipalities or organizations. It will take collaboration and collective effort across communities, sectors and levels of government.
“This is about collaboration. There is no one part of government, there is no one agency that can be doing it on its own,” Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said at the same BDN event last week. “It has to be government, working with business, working with education and philanthropy in order to have the kind of comprehensive, cohesive solutions and plans that we need.”
We remain optimistic that a forthcoming statewide economic plan being developed by Gov. Janet Mills’ administration can offer a much-needed, long-term vision for Maine’s economy. But the answer cannot come from government alone. That’s why events like the Maine Community Foundation’s annual summit being held here in Bangor at the Cross Insurance Center this Wednesday, and the Blitz entrepreneurship conference moving around several downtown Bangor locations the next day, are so important.
Wednesday’s summit, titled Maine Grown: Building a Future on Big Ideas, will focus on the role that entrepreneurship can play in growing Maine’s economy.
To borrow from Fortman’s comments last week, tackling big issues like growing Maine’s economy isn’t something any one group can do alone. It will take well-planned, collective effort.