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Maine seeks to tackle aging population challenges

September 10, 2013

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine faces a bleak future unless it begins to attract young workers, transform its housing system and find new economic opportunities in its aging population, a former state economist told lawmakers, health care officials and business leaders Tuesday.

Charlie Colgan, an economist and professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, kicked off a series of four discussions that will take place this fall with the goal of creating policy ideas lawmakers can introduce when they return in January.

Maine has the nation’s highest fraction of baby boomers in the country at more than 29 percent and the oldest median age at 43, according to recent census data. It’s also tied with Vermont for the smallest percentage of residents under 18 years old.

“It’s safe to say, I think, that when you look at the next 20 to 30 years in Maine, there really is no society has ever gone through we are about to go through,” Colgan told the roughly 70 people, from law enforcement officials to advocates for the elderly brought together by Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick.

One of Maine’s most vital needs is finding ways to encourage younger people to move here, Colgan said. Maine will lose up to 20,000 jobs over the next 30 years unless it starts bringing between 3,000 to 4,000 new people into the state every year beginning in 2020, he said.

He said while it won’t be impossible to attract younger workers, the question is what employers are going to have to pay them. As the demand for young labor increases, so too will labor costs, he said.

Members of the panel emphasized that the graying population impacts nearly every aspect of Maine society. Joel Merry, Sagadahoc County sheriff, said they have seen an increase in crimes against the elderly. Bank officials said their members are increasingly savers rather than borrowers.

Colgan said the state needs to overhaul its housing system with the growing aging population in mind by building more multi-family complexes. Maine’s housing market today is overwhelmingly made up of single-family homes designed for families with children, he said.

In the short term, lawmakers will likely look to policies designed to improve housing and transportation for the elderly, Eves said. But they also need to start examining the larger, long-term issues, like trying to attract more people to move to Maine, Eves said.

Maine needs to take action like cutting taxes to bring in younger residents and businesses and promote economic growth, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said.

“It’s time Maine examines what’s working in other states, where lower taxes, responsible budgeting, less welfare, and a pro-growth attitude are bringing people in,” he said in a statement.

But Colgan said there is no easy fix to Maine’s economic problems.

“It requires us, in short, to do all the things that American society and institutions are woefully unable to do at the moment,” he said.

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