More seniors in Alaska and more in the workforce
August 1, 2019
“The number of Alaskans who are 65 or older is growing rapidly in all regions of the state. This shift to larger senior populations across Alaska will play an important role in shaping our communities and households in the coming years.” These are the first two lines in an important new report, “Alaskans 65 and Older,” published in Alaska Economic Trends, a monthly publication of the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce.
My inner tabloid journalist wants to use a screaming headline for this article like “Seniors Overrun Alaska!” or maybe “Legislators, Cut Senior Services at Your Peril!” but really, the facts themselves are powerful enough.
The number of Alaskan seniors (65 and older) has grown by more than 5 percent every year since 2010. This explosive rate of growth is higher than any other state in the U.S. In 2010 there were 55,000 seniors in Alaska. In 2018 there were 87,000 seniors in Alaska. By 2035 there will be an estimated 138,000 seniors in Alaska. (This is where you join me in a little fist-pumping, possibly accompanied by enthusiastic victory grunts.)
Blame the quirks of Alaska’s unique history for this unusual growth of seniors. The first is that baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, poured into Alaska during the overheated economic growth days of the 1970s and 1980s. Since I was one of them, I can’t help but feel a personal relationship with these demographics. My friends of those first years in Alaska and I have all become seniors.
The second major reason for Alaska’s dramatic growth of seniors has to do with net migration -- the difference between the numbers of new residents moving into the state and former residents leaving the state. Since 2013 more people have been moving out of Alaska than moving in. In general, younger people are more mobile and are more likely to leave. Older people are more stable and more likely to stay.
Hence, negative net migration is a second important factor accounting for the extraordinary growth of seniors in the state.
However, there is irony here. Alaska has proportionally the second smallest senior population as a percentage of total state population, compared to the rest of the United States. In other words, we are starting out small, but growing very fast.
“But wait, there’s more!” as the old Ronco TV ads used to blare. According to the Department of Labor report,
“Alaska’s 85-plus population will grow throughout the projection period and make up about 3.5 percent of the state in 2045 ... Although the percentage seems small, it would be nearly 30,000 elderly Alaskans — about the size of Juneau. This is an especially important population to prepare for, as disability and the need for care increase so much with age.”
The bottom line is: Get ready. We are coming.
However, one place we have already arrived is in the Alaska workplace. In the rest of the nation the average labor force participation of seniors is 17%, but here in Alaska fully 25% of all seniors are in the labor force. The rising trend of seniors in the labor force has been emerging for several decades nationwide. In my view this is a likely outcome in light of the disappearance of classic pensions, and wages remaining flat over roughly the same period of time. Seniors have to work in order to survive.
The DOL report does not appear to explain why a higher percentage of Alaska seniors are in the workforce compared to other states. Part of the answer may be that there is more opportunity here. According to Dr. Tamika Ledbetter, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development,
“Business leaders are competing for talent both nationally and globally, and right now we have more jobs than qualified workers to fill them. Many older people have valuable technical and journey-level skills in high-demand fields. Others have years of career experience...”
In addition, the federal government and the state jointly operate a program in Alaska known as MASST (Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training). This program provides training, support and job placements for low-income seniors. For more information call (907) 465-4872, or visit the website at: labor.state.ak.us/masst/home.htm.
The full report, “Alaskans 65 and Older,” published in the June 2019 issue of Alaska Economic Trends is available for free. Call (907) 465-2700 to find out how to get a copy, or visit online at: labor.alaska.gov/trends/.
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.