Cultivating the full potential of state’s aging population

(Editor’s note: This is the third installment in an editorial series called The Changing Face of Minnesota. This year, the ECM Publishers Editorial Board is examining demographic changes and disparities in Minnesota that center around race, wealth, age, region and employment.)
The average age of a Google employee is 29.4 years. The average age of the U.S. worker has now eclipsed 42. And in very specific categories, such as mining, real estate and paper manufacturing, we are quickly approaching an average age of 50, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And Minnesota farmers, although only representing 1 percent of the state’s workforce, have an average age of 57.
We are changing as a state and nation, and how we adapt, prepare and embrace that change may well determine the course of our future for decades to come.
The aging population has an impact on many areas: housing, employment, education, transportation, social services and health care. These areas will all be affected by the burgeoning population of Minnesotans 65 and older.
According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, Minnesota’s 65-plus group grew by nearly 100,000 between 2010-14. In 2010 there were an estimated 683,000 older adults living here. State projections call for that number to increase to 965,000 by 2020. And by 2030 this group is expected to comprise 1.2 million. That is the equivalent of 20 percent of Minnesota’s total population today.
Imagine if 20 percent of our population in Minnesota were 65 and older right now. Well, in certain parts of Minnesota that is exactly the case. Douglas, Traverse and Cook counties already have 22 percent or more of their populations exceeding age 65. Isanti County is at 15.1 percent and Morrison County is nearly 18 percent.
Back at Google, it would seem they have few concerns as it relates to an aging population, since many of their employees are under the age of 30. Still, there may be some valuable lessons we can learn from the innovative folks at the Silicon Valley giant.
For instance, at Google a primary goal is keeping employees happy. They have discovered that also makes them more productive. How do they achieve this happiness? Culture. It has become part of the DNA. Everyone understands the value of career fulfillment. But there are tangible perks as well: free breakfast, lunch and dinner. Free health and dental, haircuts and dry cleaning are all part of the gig. They also subsidize on-site physicians and death benefits. Appreciating and rewarding workers is paramount to any successful business.
If we view those 65 and older as assets rather than liabilities, we start to see the true potential for Minnesota in the next century. How do we use the Google mindset in our workplaces and service organizations, not only to retain and attract a youthful workforce, but to use those same principles to attract older workers and volunteers to a job? Might it mean a different work schedule to accommodate seniors that cannot or may not want to work a 40-hour workweek but still need benefits?
Eliminating programs such as the federally funded Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps put senior citizens back to work by providing them with training and placing them in jobs, may not be the best choice in an aging society, even though President Trump’s proposal to dump it would save taxpayers $434 million.
It will also require resourceful thinking as it relates to a smaller pool of younger workers. Business and public sector organizations will need to be creative and seek solutions that maximize career happiness for the reduced field of younger workers who will be asked to be even more productive than those who came before them.
Certainly, increased pressure will be placed on public services as our population ages. And all of it will be occurring as fewer workers are attempting to support those programs. In a long-range strategic planning document prepared by the Minnesota Department of Administration, officials noted that “state leaders should be aware that income taxes, sales receipts, and other state revenue streams will be affected by this demographic shift, so that they can contemplate necessary adjustments.”
In fiscal year 2015 Medical Assistance long-term care services for enrollees age 65 and older in Minnesota totaled $1.1 billion. Using current trends and allowing for inflation, that number grows to $3.8 billion by 2040, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
A similar scenario is played out with seniors who are now accessing services many refer to as food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). In 2006, 28 percent of seniors used what is now known as SNAP. By 2015, that number had ballooned to 58 percent. This critical source of support will be even more important in the years ahead. Congressional legislators must be mindful of this critical support program, especially as it becomes a target of reduction under President Trump’s budget proposal.
Our greatest tool in a framework for preparation is education. Right now Minnesota ranks second nationally with 50 percent of its population 24-64 with an associate degree or higher. This is important because there is a direct correlation to education attainment and reduced poverty levels. And the early signs of shortfalls can already be seen. For instance, Minnesota’s minority population will grow from 14 percent today to 25 percent of the total population by 2035, according to a report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Currently 21 percent of American Indian and 25 percent Hispanic adults between the ages of 25-44 are obtaining higher education certificates. Roughly 27 percent of black Minnesotans older than age 25 have earned at minimum a two-year degree. That compares to the white population at 48 percent.
As the minority population grows and the white population shrinks as a percentage of the total population, it will place more importance on making sure our educational achievement gaps are being reduced. Shrinking that gap must be a priority to provide hope for a better life for thousands of Minnesotans and to ensure that the talent pool here remains attractive for current and future business. That means investment in education must remain a priority at the state level.
Clearly there are challenges with an aging population, but there is also great hope of what can be achieved. It starts by recognizing and nurturing the tremendous potential in all Minnesotans no matter what their age might be. — An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board