Interview by Brian Kevin
Illustrated by Michael Byers
Maine has the country’s oldest population by median age and its highest concentration of baby boomers. With an aging populace come challenges — but also opportunities. Could Maine’s “demographic cliff” turn the state into a laboratory for livability?
Choose your favorite metaphor: The Maine Heritage Policy Center once deployed the term “demographic winter.” The governor’s most recent budget briefing stuck with the ever-popular “demographic cliff.” In an article last spring, The New York Times settled on “demographic tsunami” — as in, “Economists regard Maine’s rapidly aging population as a demographic tsunami that has severe implications for the state’s labor pool, healthcare system and overall socioeconomic well-being.”
Whichever your pick, they all sound pretty grim. And no doubt, the state has its share of problems to address thanks to its low birth rate, modest rates of in-migration, and tendency to lose younger wage earners to higher-paying states, all of which combine to make Maine’s population the nation’s oldest. Among those problems: a critical need for more home- and healthcare workers, a lack of affordable housing and public transit options, and an overabundance of films in local cinemas starring dames Maggie Smith or Judi Dench (just kidding, they’re both divine).
But there’s a different way to look at an aging Maine, says Jessica Maurer, co-founder and executive director of the Maine Council on Aging and a longtime Maine policy wonk who spent nearly two decades working in the state attorney general’s office. Consider, she says, that the kinds of cultural, workplace, and community adaptations that make a place livable and sustainable for older folks also tend to make it livable and sustainable for everybody else. Which means that thoughtfully adapting to meet the needs of its older population could turn Maine into a foundry for new ideas in crowdsourcing, co-housing, workplace flexibility, cooperative entrepreneurship, regional-scale sustainable transportation, creative zoning, and a host of other social innovations that the rest of the country is keen to adopt.
A tsunami, indeed. We sat down with Maurer to learn more about how the graying of Maine might be a golden opportunity.
A few months ago, you helped host the annual Maine Summit on Aging, which had “reframing aging” as its theme. What does it mean?
We’re really stuck on this idea that aging is bad. But we’re aging from the time we’re born — everything we’re doing is aging. When we stop aging, that’s bad. We associate aging with disease, disability, but man, 70 is vital — literally half of the CEOs in this country are probably in their 60s and 70s. So the reframe is about thinking we have something to offer our whole lives, particularly older folks who are full of experience, whether it’s their hobby of fly-fishing and tying flies, or hunting, or guiding along the Allagash, or organic farming, or maybe it’s somebody who’s been an architect or an engineer.
Percentage of Maine adults aged 60 and over experiencing food insecurity
My next door neighbor is 68; he’s an internationally renowned composite engineer. He’s mostly retired, still does some work, but he’s a boatbuilder — that’s what he loves. So he went to a local school and convinced them to let the kids come and work on this boat that he’s building. All his own initiative; no grants, nobody paying him to do it. This guy has got a brilliant mind, and he helped these kids learn math in an applied way, taught them how to apply epoxy. These kids have a different take on life because of his engagement with them.
Now magnify that 100,000 times, because Maine has so many folks who have the capacity to give back in all kinds of ways. But we don’t do that. We don’t ask, what’s next? How are you going to take what you have in your brain and give it to somebody else in the next iteration? Because we don’t value that.
So we were trying to tell the story of older adults as entrepreneurs — they’re one of the fastest-growing segments of small business owners. Older adults as creators — there are a lot of folks doing all sorts of arts and aging programs. Older adults as leading community development. Boomers are the biggest bubble right now, and they have a lot to offer. So that’s the reframe — not “they’re a drag on the economy,” not “we have to take care of all these old people,” not “what will happen to our healthcare costs?” We do so much hand wringing. We don’t say, “Wait a minute, we have this huge asset that’s going away.”
Percentage of Maine seniors living in rural areas
How does that reframe play out in the ways our communities have to adapt to serve an older population?
The thing is that we’re living longer and our systems don’t work for everyone anymore, so we need to start having a dialogue. That’s what aging-in-place and aging-in-community initiatives are about is starting community dialogues about what it’s like to age here, what are the challenges, and what are the good things in our communities that are working for older folks and working for everybody. And pretty much whatever you do to help an old person stay in their community helps everybody.
Can you unpack that idea a bit more?
Take traffic-calming mechanisms — when you put those in, that makes everybody more safe. Or curb cut-outs. If you’ve ever been in a wheelchair — but also if you’re pushing a baby stroller — then you know it’s a pain in the butt to get over the lip of a curb. So curb cut-outs are great for everybody, whether they’re using a walker, in a wheelchair, pushing a stroller, or you’re a millennial looking at your phone.
Building multi-family housing is good for everybody; not everybody wants to live in it, but it’s good for everybody. Right now, we have a jobs mentality, but we have plenty of jobs — lots and lots of jobs, open jobs. We need 9,000 people to in-migrate to Maine every year in order to meet the needs of the growing and retiring workforce, and we don’t have any place to house them. When I hear someone say 600 jobs are coming to Brunswick, I wonder, where are they going to live? Rentals are through the roof; the rental market is essentially nil. We haven’t invested in infrastructure, and there’s no quick fix.
Particularly among boomers, there’s a big movement to live together in shared housing. So there are three or four divorced or never married boomer women who are thinking, I don’t really have enough money for a condo in Portland, but if three or four friends and I pool our resources . . . . But your town may have an ordinance about a certain number of unrelated adults living together, so that’s the kind of thing we have to be thoughtful about. We’re going to have to change the nature of our communities.
The estimated percentage over 50 years old of the 3,100 prospective entrepreneurs who sought small-business mentoring from SCORE Maine last year
Transportation is one of those big things. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to drive anymore, and frankly we should all be less reliant on individual cars. In Harpswell and Brunswick, we have a little transportation network, but it only has so many volunteers and so many riders, because we haven’t yet changed that culture of individualism — I’m independent, I want to go when I want to go, I don’t want to have to pick somebody up, I don’t want to be inconvenienced, etc. But we need to move to a model of interconnected self-determination. So if you have this nice little volunteer transportation network and you have Uber? You put them together, and you change this culture that says, “I’m going to drive four or five times a week into Brunswick, twice a week to Augusta, and probably once to Portland.” If I had a simple app that I opened, and I could just post that I’m going to Portland at 10 a.m.? We change that culture to where we always say, “I’m going somewhere and I’m happy to take somebody with me.”
There’s a ton of research on this, but what millennials want and what boomers want are exactly the same things. They’re looking for quality of place. They want to live where they can get around easily with only one car or no car, where they can walk to entertainment, food, exercise, faith, whatever your thing is — walkable downtown communities. It makes sense that people want to live in those kinds of communities — they also work for people with disabilities, for people with kids. The question is, is Maine going to be the leader or not?
You mention jobs going unfilled on account of low in-migration and a retiring workforce. What industries are most affected?
The healthcare sector is particularly hard hit. Nursing, especially. We could probably hire 1,000 nurses this week statewide. Maine Healthcare Association did a survey in 2016, and at the time of the survey, they could have hired 200 RNs just in nursing-home care — not counting assisted living. When we mentioned that in a meeting, one of the people from Eastern Maine Health Systems said, “We could hire 200 nurses today.”
Also construction, we don’t have enough builders. We don’t have enough plumbers, we don’t have enough electricians, so the trades. Degree-oriented jobs are still pretty competitive.
My organization works closely with L.L.Bean, which has done a terrific job of building a multi-generational workforce. They have five generations of workers, teenagers all the way to people in their 90s. They create human resources policies that are really thoughtful and supportive. But for the first time last year, they couldn’t fill their peak-season jobs — pickers, packers call center jobs — they couldn’t meet their employment goal.
As older Mainers age out of the workforce, the Maine employment sectors losing the most workers
How does a reframe help us address the lack?
There’s a 2014 report called Making Maine Work that says that we basically need to put people who are 65-plus back to work — but there’s a lot needed to do that. We need two lightning rods: We need one of them in business, a credible source, to say, “You’re going to have to build multigenerational workforces. The age of ageism is done. You’re going to have to value older workers. You’re going to have to create flex schedules. You’re going to have to let people share jobs. You’re going to have to have family-care leave policies if you want to stay in business. Because you’re going to have to employ older people.”
Then, over here, we’re going to have to tell older people, we need you to go back to work. We really do. If you’re going to keep the Hannaford open in Millinocket, we need you to go back to work, because there are no young people to keep these jobs.
There’s this bootstrap thing that’s going to come for us in little towns. Where I live, in Harpswell, there’s a convenience store about a mile from my house that, in the last year, has scaled back hours because they can’t find workers. When they close, and the person who’s 85 and doesn’t like to drive, who lives 5 miles south of me, has to drive to the Brunswick Hannaford in a storm, that’s a big deal.
Years Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins has served on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which she now chairs
So I think we have to have new business models. We maybe have to think about creating a co-op. If I want a convenience store in my community, I might have to take a shift. We’re all going to have to think differently, and we need to help people realize that 65 is not a retirement age anymore if you’re going to live to 95. Lots of older folks would work longer if they could work differently. It’s not that people have to kill themselves working, but it would be really great for 60-something-year-olds who are thinking about retiring to immediately begin to think about, what’s next? That’s the question. It’s not, I’m done. It’s, what’s next?
What about folks who are coming here from away to retire? Where do they fit into the picture?
So far, that’s who’s coming, and they’re bringing resources with them, so hey, come on in. Our net worth is increasing with their in-migration. They bring resources, they bring skills, they bring volunteer hours. They bring assets, and they are assets themselves.
The age of ageism is done. You’re going to have to value older workers.
A lot of folks come up here for the quality of place, so there are a lot of outdoor-rec people, skiers and hikers. And that’s good — that’s also contributing to the economy. But a lot of older folks who are moving from away, they’re not really retired. Maybe one of them might be, and the other one is still working as a consultant, still contributing to the economy. And all of them, I think, still have the capacity to contribute to the economy. We just have so many opportunities, particularly for intergenerational learning, and we need to tap in. I wish we could make people fill out a questionnaire when they come in. What are your skills? What do you like to do? How do we connect you?
There’s this caricature of an old Mainer as nostalgic, set in his or her ways. But what I hear you saying is that Maine’s bumper crop of boomers actually presents opportunities for some pretty broad and progressive social shifts. Am I overstating it?
I don’t think it’s too hifalutin to say that. It’s a silent revolution, but it’s a revolution nonetheless. We’re having these conversations all over Maine about what our communities are right now and about how we want to live together. Aging is the thing that’s causing the conversation to happen, but it’s going to benefit everybody.