AUGUSTA — Any efforts to improve the economy in Maine will be thwarted by the state’s aging population unless the state can attract more young people, and the widely held goal of preventing young Mainers from moving out of state won’t come close to solving the problem.

That was the keynote message from University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan during a four-part forum launched Tuesday morning by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

“People assume that if we could just keep our young people here, it would solve the problem,” said Colgan to dozens of people who gathered at the Augusta Civic Center. “There are not half enough of them because not enough young people are born here. We have to get people from other places to move here. We’ve got to get more people in.”

Colgan, who is regarded as one of the state’s most experienced economists, estimates that in addition to keeping Mainers from moving away, the state must attract at least 3,000 new residents a year for the next 20 years in order to sustain the state’s workforce.

It won’t be easy.

In addition to myriad reasons that Maine is at a competitive disadvantage — ranging from tax rates to frigid winters — a dearth of high-paying jobs that could prompt young people to come to the Pine Tree State poses a major recruitment challenge.

“Unless we can get productivity to exceed the increased cost in workers, we will suffer competitively in the long run,” said Colgan. “The issue here is not just the wages, not just the physical number of people. We are going to have to have smarter, quicker and more productive workers. If we cannot compete on quantity, we are going to have to compete on quality.”

Eves’ Round Table on Aging in Maine is designed to cull ideas that could lead to legislation for the next session, which begins in January. Thursday’s was the first of four installments between now and the end of the year.

“Addressing the impacts of Maine’s aging population is a policy imperative,” said Eves in a prepared statement. “Whether you are among the aging population increasingly needing health care or a family member caring for a parent or an employer looking at a retiring workforce, Maine’s shifting demographics will impact all of us.”

Maine is the oldest state in the nation, per capita, and its population of older residents is growing rapidly. U.S. census data show that 21 percent of the state’s population is 60 or older and that by 2030, one-quarter of Mainers will be older than 65.

“We must look at these challenges and shift the conversation away from simply how to manage long-term care,” said Eves. “We need a new dialogue about how to create a state that embraces older citizens. We must expand opportunities for older people in areas such as housing, transportation and the workforce.”

Colgan said the changes he advocates will require a cultural transformation unlike anything that has been seen in American history.

“It requires us, in short, to do all the things that American society and organizations do woefully badly,” he said. “There is a place here for Maine not only to adapt, but lead the world in terms of the ability of society to reform itself to adapt to an older population.”


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