As host of the “Midday” program on Minnesota Public Radio News for two decades, I was focused on the news of the day to be sure but we also tried to focus on broader, underlying issues that often don’t make the headlines. Essential issues like the future of Minnesota’s workforce.
Minnesota’s economy is booming. The Twin Cities unemployment rate is hovering at just 2.3 percent, the lowest in 19 years. As a result, local wages jumped 6.2 percent (adjusted for inflation) between the second quarters of 2014 and 2017.
That’s great news for people, and for the state. But there’s also a demographic crisis taking shape. We are getting older.
In the span of about 15 years — from 2015 to 2030 — the number of Minnesotans age 65 or older is expected to nearly double, from about 750,000 to more than 1.2 million people. In a little more than a decade, 1 in 5 state residents will be 65 or older.
That statistic has big implications because older Minnesotans, like older Americans everywhere, are less likely to work. And companies need workers to keep our state’s economy vibrant.
As a result, the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance has assembled legislators, business leaders and citizens to dig into this topic in a series of six conversations around the state. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to serve as moderator of the series. The first conversation occurred a few months ago in Minneapolis. The next one is scheduled for March 23 in Marshall.
The bull market (notwithstanding the past few weeks) and falling unemployment rates have contributed to fewer people looking for work.
In listening to University of Minnesota Prof. Laura Kalambokidis, the state economist, and others share insights at the first meeting, I learned that in-migration from other states or countries isn’t going to help us much. Our labor force is expected to increase only slightly — 0.1 percent — from 2020 to 2025.
Even today, companies have to do more than simply post “Help Wanted” ads to attract workers.
“Employers are trying to get creative about looking at changes in compensation, looking to populations that they haven’t looked at before,” Kalambokidis said. “Necessity is the mother of invention because employers have to find people to fill these positions.”
I wondered whether that translated into hiring people of all ages: “Are they creative enough where they would consider hiring older folks?” I asked.
“I think they are,” Kalambokidis replied. “If it’s a population that they’ve overlooked because they thought, ‘Well, maybe those people don’t have the training or they need additional flexibility in hours.’ Older folks might be looking for more flexibility, part-time, maybe working from home or the cabin.”
One of the factors affecting how long older Minnesotans work is the stock market. When stock prices fall and portfolios lag, people tend stay in the workforce longer so they can save for retirement. When portfolios rise, people are more likely to feel financially secure enough to call it quits.
Another panelist at our first meeting put it this way. “We are seeing still that massive movement out of the labor force around the ages of 60 or 65 and people just have a lot longer to live after their work lives,” said state demographer Susan Brower. “We haven’t realized the gains in work life [participation] that we’ve gained in life expectancy.”
Some people refer to older workers as a “demographic dividend” that could benefit society if they’re enticed to keep punching a time clock. But hurdles remain, including age discrimination, a lack of training opportunities and rigid work schedules preventing older workers from taking time off to travel, visit with friends and family, deal with health problems, or just relax.
Personally, I’d like to see if we can figure out a way to keep Minnesota’s economy moving forward by tapping into the great experience and commitment of our older workers. I hope you can join us in Marshall on March 23 to learn more.
For more information: Go to tinyurl.com/ courageousconversations2, call 612-625-5340 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gary Eichten is the retired host of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Midday” program and the moderator of the University of Minnesota’s Courageous Conversations series.