Maine has been hit by a "silver tsunami"

The state of Maine has earned yet another distinction this year, beyond their recent victories over Canada in the lobster wars. But this accomplishment doesn’t really have anyone celebrating. The Pine Tree State has joined West Virginia as the only two to have more people dying annually than being born. The implications of this should be obvious and it doesn’t spell good news for the state’s budget or its growing army of senior citizens. Some have taken to referring to this effect as the “silver tsunami.” (Boston Globe)

But across the state, the rapid aging of Maine’s population — a trend known by some as the “silver tsunami” — has reached a crucial tipping point, many say. As baby boomers head into retirement, and many young people move away in search of opportunity, Maine is one of only two states, along with West Virginia, where deaths now outnumber births.

That gulf is reshaping life here in myriad ways, from shrinking the workforce to intensifying the demand for services for the elderly, and it will only widen in the coming years, demographers predict.

Already, Maine has more residents 65 and older than 18 and younger. By 2026, the number of residents over 65 is expected to skyrocket by 37 percent from its level in 2016, while nearly every other age group declines, partly the consequence of rising life expectancy and falling fertility rates.

Why people are fleeing Maine isn’t as obvious at first glance as the exodus we’re seeing from states like New York. The median income there is around $56K, only slightly below the national average, and their cost of living tends to considerably lower than in the major cities. Maine’s per capita violent crime rate is the lowest in the entire nation. Their unemployment rate is below three percent. The state’s “happiness index” is right about in the middle of the pack, ranked 24th in the nation.

But there clearly must be good reasons for all the young people fleeing, perhaps beginning with their state income tax. (It’s actually higher than New York’s for higher earners.) Maybe it’s the weather. I’ve been to Maine in the winter and it’s no picnic. Or perhaps people just don’t like living so close to Canada.

Whatever the cause, there are more people dying than babies being born to replace them. The only reason Maine isn’t decreasing in population is the large number of immigrants and asylum seekers who continue to arrive.

Maybe the question we need to be answering is why fertility rates are falling all over the country and many parts of the developed world. Part of the answer is probably the fact that marriage rates have been slowly falling for decades. After a slight uptick from 2014-2016, they’re declining again. And those married couples have been producing an average of between 1.8 and 1.9 children each since the 90s. (The average was more than 2.5 in the sixties.) At the same time, the number of children born out of wedlock has been declining also, after peaking at 41% in the late 2000s.

The fact is, we’re just not producing as many people as a country would need to maintain growth at the levels we were previously used to seeing. Overall, that might be a good thing for the planet when you consider that we’re now supporting a vastly larger number of people than we could possibly feed if our technology collapsed. And the impact of nearly eight billion souls on the ecosystem can’t be ignored. But any significant population reduction is going to come with some very serious shrinking pains. Fewer young people working means fewer resources to care for the growing ranks of the elderly.

The solution? Just “having more babies” doesn’t solve it all and it would be rather tough to mandate legislatively. The best advice for the generations coming up through the ranks now would be to start saving for your retirement very early and aggressively. The government won’t be able to take care of everyone for much longer.