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State Has To Reverse Aging

Tom Condon

March 22, 2009

We're losing our young people!

I've heard this so often, in so many places, that I'm sometimes surprised when I run into a recent college graduate in the gym. Hey kid, nice tattoo, but aren't you supposed to be in, I don't know, San Jose? The loss of young workers is trumpeted as the rationale for new laws and policies in education, housing and job training.

Is it really a problem?

A Jan. 23 New Haven Register article says what is oft repeated: "Connecticut has lost a higher percentage of 25- to 34-year-old workers since 1990 than any other state." I decided to follow that thread.

The raw numbers look pretty grim. In 1990, 17.8 percent of the state's population was in the 25 to 34 cohort. By 2000, the number had dropped to 13.3 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimate from 2007, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds has dropped to 404,193, only 11.6 percent of 3,494,881 souls.

But the figures aren't quite as bad as they seem. In 1990, young men and women from the last wave of the baby boom were in the 25 to 34 cohort, and so the numbers were high in most of the country, in the 16-18 percent range. Connecticut was higher than most, but not by much. For example, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds in New Jersey was 17.6, just behind Connecticut.

By 2000, the young boomers were beginning to get those first gray hairs, and the numbers reflect a lower birthrate. Connecticut's percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds drops to 13.3 percent, but so does everyone else's. Most other states are in the same 12-14 percent range. No real problem here.

The 2007 numbers from this age group offer slightly more reason for concern. Most Northeastern states go down a little more, but hold somewhere around 12 percent (New Jersey and Rhode Island are both at 12.4 percent, Massachusetts at 12.8). The booming Sunbelt states are around 14 percent. Connecticut dropped to 11.6 percent. We are not without company. New Hampshire, which has actually lost a higher percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds since 1990 than Connecticut, along with Maine and Vermont, had slightly lower percentages in 2007 than we did.

Still, this doesn't look like a crisis. But Orlando Rodriguez, demographer and head of the State Data Center at UConn, suggests looking at the nuances in the numbers.

For example, the young people who do leave tend to be the more educated ones, usually leaving in search of jobs (We're getting hosed! We paid a small fortune to educate these kids, and they're going to freakin' San Jose!) The ones who stay tend to be less well educated, which bodes ill for the future workforce.

Also, since a peak in 2003-2005 at 523,100, the state's public school population has begun to drop. The drop in the last school year was nearly 4,000, and a similar number is expected for this year when figures are announced later this week. Rodriguez expects the enrollment decline to continue until 2020, and to reduce the peak by more than 90,000 K-12 students.

The state's overall population has barely been growing, and that's only because of 15,000 or so foreign immigrants a year. Were it not for new arrivals, Rodriguez said, we'd be shrinking, as Rhode Island's population has been for the past five years.

OK, you may say, we have a smaller state, so what? Less traffic. Easier to get UConn tickets.

The problem is who remains. We do get people coming back to the state in their 30s and 40s, to raise families or take middle-management jobs. When the census measured 25- to 44-year-olds in 2006, Connecticut tied for the 26th highest percentage among the 50 states. But these people will inevitably get older. Many of the wealthiest will leave when they retire.

Rodriguez said the number of people over age 65 is expected to increase by 75 percent by 2030, and that a significant increase will be felt by 2015. With the best and brightest in San Jose, and a large elderly population here, who will pay the taxes? The casinos?

So before the state turns into one big Medicaid nursing home, we need to get moving. We need to improve the business climate and enhance the quality of life so we can create and attract real jobs. We need to stop building so much "active adult" housing for people leaving the workforce and build something for the people trying to enter the workforce. We need to leverage what is here great hospitals, corporations and universities into more business opportunities.

In short, as Mrs. Loman said about her husband Willy, attention must be paid.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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