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NM’s gray boom could have dark trajectory

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some new data confirm what we’ve known for a while now – that New Mexico is not growing, its economy is stagnant and its population is aging.

The trend lines point to a New Mexico in 15 or 20 years that looks quite different from the one we live in now.

Grayer: According to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, New Mexico’s population under 18 had a 2 percent drop between 2010 and 2103, the population between the ages of 18 and 64 was flat and the population 65 and older grew by 12 percent. The Census Bureau predicts that New Mexico’s population of seniors will have doubled from 2000 to 2030.

More going-away parties: In the past year, New Mexico experienced what demographers call “net out-migration.” It means more people left than moved in – a net loss of 8,809 people. It was the extension of a trend that has been going on here since 2010.

Meanwhile, the states that surround us are all experiencing net in-migration. Births barely made up for net out-migration here, resulting in a population increase of 0.1 percent from 2012 to 2013 – about as close to a flat growth line as you can get.

Fewer jobs: Over the past four decades, with federal spending booming, New Mexico has ranked among the top 15 states for job growth, but not anymore.

Last year, we ranked 48th. As the rest of the country has recovered from the recession, New Mexico hasn’t. A snapshot from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of employment in New Mexico taken in May 2008 showed 907,775 jobs and, five years later, it showed 871,215.

While June was a bright spot, with the state’s labor market showing year-over-year growth, New Mexico still ranked 48th worst in the country in jobs added, and Forbes magazine just ranked Albuquerque the worst city in the country for projected job growth through 2016.

None of these trends is cause for celebration if you’re hoping to live in a place that has a diverse population and a vigorous economy full of opportunities. It’s tempting to look at it all and say we’re sunk, although that’s not a very helpful response.

When I’m trying to understand how what’s happening today might affect our future and how we might design our future for the challenges, I like to talk to Albuquerque architect and urban planner Dale Dekker.

When I told him we were on track to jump from 39th highest to fourth highest in the country in percentage of population 65 and older by 2030, he said, “Ooh, jeez.”

While senior citizens can be good for an economy (Dekker cites a study that concluded that two retirees locating to a city equals three manufacturing jobs in economic output), he points out that a severely senior-heavy population is not a foundation for a prosperous future. Those seniors – at least the affluent ones – spend money, but they don’t spend as much money as young people.

Millennials (those born roughly from the early 1980s to the early 2000s) have kids, have jobs, buy houses, build businesses and pay a greater share of taxes.

“They have aspirations to build a better life for themselves and their community. They spend money,” Dekker says, “and that’s what makes the economy grow and thrive.”

A report by the state’s Aging and Long-Term Services Department points out the pluses of aging baby boomers: They tend to be more physically active than previous generations of seniors and, with more education than previous generations, want to remain civically engaged.

But, the report says, increased age brings increased frailty and disability, and rising hospital and nursing home costs, as well as pressures on in-home caregiving networks. There’s economic opportunity there, of course, for nursing homes and developers of retirement communities, and for a lot of employees in the service sector to take care of them.

Older people will continue to retire to New Mexico because of its climate and cultural amenities. And, if we’re lucky, we younger New Mexicans will grow old and become a part of that senior population bulge. So the gray boom will happen.

But if you think of an economy as a boat, you can’t have one filled with older people and children, and being rowed by a shrinking segment of the so-called productive 18- to 65-year-olds.

“I would just hope that we’d also strategically think about attracting as many working-age, productive millennials to our state as possible to continue to generate sufficient activity to support an economy that can then go on and support an aging society.”

How do you do that? You stop waiting for the federal government to swoop in and add back all those jobs and contracts and construction projects we’ve relied on for decades, Dekker says.

“We have to reset our economy on a new reality. Business needs to step up. We need to start driving the boat,” Dekker says. “The federal white knight attitude that we’ve always had that they’re going to come in and save the day is just not going to happen. We need to take our future into our own hands, and we’re not used to doing that.”

What if that doesn’t happen and New Mexico continues to shift from the 30- and 40-year-olds and their economic vigor toward the senior set and their demands on government services?

“I think you’ll see a lot of people who can afford to leave the state will leave the state and it’s just going to be a downward spiral,” Dekker says. “We have a huge opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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