Hundreds of job seekers waited in line to search for job opportunities at the Minneapolis Career Fair in Bloomington, Monday, September 12, 2011

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How have Minnesotans evolved in this economy?

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2012 - 5:07 PM

As a lifelong journalist, I've spent many hours thinking about the economy and how it is affecting people so that we can inform readers and they can make better decisions about their lives. I've also had far more economics classes than the average person (for better or for worse).

Yet neither years of experience covering the economy's ups and downs nor an education in economics can really serve as a reliable guide for what's going to happen next in this great, diverse economy of ours. Why do I say this?

About a decade ago, almost every economist was predicting a labor shortage in future years. As we were coming out of the last recession, this newspaper wrote stories about the lagging job market but quoted some of the smartest economic thinkers, who suggested that in the decades to come, this was a problem that would solve itself.

As the prevailing wisdom went at the time: The great wave of baby boomers was going to start retiring en masse, creating huge demand for workers.

Well, the future is now, and we only have to look at a national unemployment rate hovering at 8.5 percent to know that we have yet to see a shortage of workers and likely won't for years to come.

A front-page story today helps explain part of the reason. Many boomers, out of desire or necessity, are working well past historical retirement ages.

The numbers are startling: Since 2006, before the Great Recession devastated the economy, we've seen a 22 percent growth in people over 65 who are holding a job. Grandma isn't at home tending to her garden; she's selling insurance or flipping burgers.

That's one of many shifts in the way people live today that has made us question if there are fundamental changes under way in our economy that will permanently alter how middle-class Minnesotans live, work, go to school, shop, buy homes, raise their kids and retire.

We don't know the answer to the first part of that question, and for all the reasons already stated, we don't want to draw conclusions.

The last time journalists began postulating about the possibility of a fundamentally different economy was in the late 1990s, when people actually began to believe that the stock market, and the value of their homes, would only go up.

To this day, I can remember reading a Wall Street Journal story quoting a woman telling her stockbroker that maybe he needed to wake up and realize that there were new economic laws in play. Anybody who bought Cisco stock at its peak (guilty) knows what happened next.

But whether our economy has changed permanently, or temporarily, the repercussions from the economic shock clearly are prompting many people to live life differently in all sorts of ways, just as the Great Depression resulted in a generation devoted to frugality or those wonderful go-go '90s created a generation of spendthrifts.

So this year, we've asked Business Editor Todd Stone and Special Projects Editor Kate Parry to work with reporters all across the newsroom to try to capture the story of how the Great Recession changed our mind-sets and our way of life.

Are Minnesotans rethinking what it means to be middle-class? Do they still believe in the value of a college education? Have they given up on home ownership as a fundamental dream?

For some people, of course, life has gone on unaltered, but that's part of the story, too. Our journalists will spend the year examining life in Minnesota's middle class in myriad ways; over time, we hope to paint the tapestry of how Minnesotans have changed.

Meanwhile, as we begin this venture I have a niggling feeling that new forces may yet be in play that could still make the world look very different a year from now, because, of course, we can never really know when economic winds will change.

Even as I'm writing this, we are reporting that 200,000 jobs were created in December, the most in several years. I'm reminded of a talk that Richard Davis, CEO of U.S. Bancorp, gave to a group of business leaders in November.

He reminded them about a time in our history when journalists were writing about a "comatose" economic recovery, "debt hangovers" and real-estate recessions. He was quoting from a Time magazine article that appeared in September 1992, shortly before that decade's stock rush took off.

If the silver lining of the Great Recession exposes itself while we are still writing about its long-lasting ripples, it will be both ironic and welcome -- just as it was 20 years ago.

History does have a way of circling back.

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Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.

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