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Michigan is aging faster than the national average

Jun 23, 2017

Years ago, when the baby boomers completely dominated the culture, someone once said that we’d know their influence was finally ending when magazines had cover stories on designer funeral homes. Well, we aren’t there yet.

But new U.S. Census population estimates this week show that the nation is indeed getting older, and Michigan is aging faster than the national average.

And that’s something I don’t think our leaders sufficiently appreciate. At least, they aren’t taking the steps needed to prevent Michigan becoming another West Virginia – a steadily aging state, poorer than the national average, and best known as home to a dying industry.

Well, the auto industry isn’t coal, and Michigan is a far more diverse state. Nor is our population quite as old. West Virginia is one of five states where more than half the people are over 42 – the others being Florida, as you might expect, and Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, home of the eternally not-so-young Bernie Sanders.

But Michigan’s median population is getting there. It’s now 39.7, nearly two years higher than the national average. Ominously, it’s also increased by more than four years since the turn of the century. If you think that means young people aren’t sticking around, that’s exactly right.

They need jobs and opportunities. Years ago, it was the old who went to Florida. Now, the old is who are staying. In Alcona County, on Lake Huron’s northern shore not far from Cheboygan, more than half the population is 58 or older, making it the fourth oldest county in the nation.

Many other counties in northern rural Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula, aren’t far behind. Eric Guthrie, the official state demographer, tried to sound an optimistic note.

When the Census estimates were released, he told reporters this meant Michigan might be in a position to gain jobs as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement. He even predicted we might see a wave of in-migration.

Well, that’s a nice theory, but there’s really no sign of that. Kurt Metzger, perhaps the state’s best-known demographer, is now the mayor of the tiny suburb of Pleasant Ridge, but still keeps a close eye on population trends. He doesn’t see any signs we are attracting young people.

Nor do boomers seem to be in a hurry to retire. While the oldest of them are now 71, many more are still in their 50s and 60s, and don’t feel able to afford to do so.

Some did leave the workforce during the Great Recession. Others just gave up. Ten years ago, about 70% of Michigan adults were employed or looking for work.

That’s down to just a little over 60% today. Remember, if you can’t find a job and get so depressed you stop looking, you aren’t counted as unemployed. You don’t have to be a population expert to know that we need to find ways to attract more jobs and people.

But there doesn’t appear to be a great urgency to do that in Lansing, and an appalling lack of energy aimed at finding creative solutions, other than mindlessly pushing tax cuts.

What this state needs most of all is new ideas -- and leaders with open minds. Sadly, both, like jobs themselves, seem to be in too-short supply.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.