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The Coming Of Old Age In America

April 21, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

Even with Connecticut and its towns authorizing several billion dollars in recent years to build public schools, the state - and the rest of America - is about to make a transition to a society as dominated by aging as by growing up.

In a first look into the future based on the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau is releasing projections today that suggest how big forces like health care, foreign immigration, and women delaying or forgoing child-rearing will radically reshape life over the first three decades of the 21st century.

The projections foreshadow a nation where by 2030, political power increasingly will be concentrated in fast-growing Southern and Western states - and among older Americans, said experts who reviewed the statistics before their general release. For slow-growth states such as Connecticut and the rest of New England, the projections will probably mean less political clout, in terms of fewer seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College.

Florida may lose its status as the pre-eminent haunt of the elderly. In 2000, all 50 states had more children and teenagers than seniors. By 2030, 10 states - including Maine, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana - would have more people over 65 than under 18.

"It's really amazing," demographer Mark Mather said of the coming transformation in states such as Maine, where the population's median age will gain eight years to reach 47, and where the number of seniors will double by 2030. "Every state is going to look like Florida, or older than Florida, by 2030. I think the entire culture is going to be changing."

In Connecticut, the modest population growth the state is enjoying this decade will slow after 2010, and screech to a halt after 2020, the Census Bureau said. Even as the state's total population grows by 8.3 percent to 2030, Connecticut will have 17,000 fewer school-age children than it had in 2000.

The number of people in Connecticut over the age of 65 will grow by 69 percent, while the number of people 85 or older will double. Yet, the Census Bureau says that unlike many states in the Northeast and the Midwest, Connecticut has a population that is not aging more rapidly than the nation's, because the state continues to attract foreign immigrants who tend to be younger.

"Connecticut is in the mainstream of where the country is going," said Bill Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "I think the whole country will need to deal with an aging America. One good thing about it is the people who are aging are the baby boomers who are still going to be contributing to society - what I call the yuppie elderly."

It's likely that many boomers aged 65 to 85 in 2030 will still be in good health, Frey said, enjoying a stable income based on their high levels of education.

Because older people are more likely to vote, and because there are soon to be a lot more of them, they will soon make up a formidable political bloc within Connecticut as well as across the nation. But how will they use that political power?

Several demographers who did a quick red state-blue state analysis said the projected shifts could represent good news for Republicans and trouble for Democrats.

"If you were to take this population distribution for 2030, and hold the 2004 election, John Kerry would have been just completely destroyed, because all the states where he did well are expected to lose population [relative to fast-growing red states] in the next 25 years," said Mather, who is a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.

In Connecticut, economists say a flat population raises the threat of a stagnant economy, and a mismatch between today's housing stock and the needs of the future.

"In the long run, what we're really looking for is economic vitality, and economic vitality usually starts with population growth," said Donald Klepper-Smith, chief economist with DataCore Partners.

As the median age of Connecticut's population goes from people in their mid-30s to people in their early 40s, businesses may have to focus more on providing services than goods, said Ron Van Winkle, a West Hartford economist.

"In your 40s, you're still accumulating things. By the time you're 50, you're at an age when your garage is full, and the type of things you consume tend to be more in the service nature, rather than in the goods nature - you go on vacation; you have somebody do your taxes," Van Winkle said.

But others said a flat population could yield benefits, too.

"It gives us a chance to take a deep breath: You mean we've actually got a chance to do something about sprawl, to do something about traffic congestion?" said Tim Cline, a spokesman for Population Connection, the Washington, D.C., advocacy group formerly known as Zero Population Growth.

Cline, a former resident of Guilford, said a stable population will mean a better quality of life for Connecticut.

"We can build better schools for the students that are there, instead of always racing to build more and more schools, to take care of the new kids who are coming," he said. "It means we can improve the roads we've got; we don't have to build all these new roads to take care of all this new traffic. It's a chance that we can save places like northwest Connecticut, that are still rural."

This is the first time since 1996 that the Census Bureau has looked forward to what will happen to each of the 50 states. The bureau says there are a number of reasons Connecticut's population growth is expected to slow, a chief one being that the fertility rate of the state's women is one of the lowest in the nation.

With a rate of 1.875 births per woman, Connecticut has fewer than the 2.21 births a population needs to sustain itself. Based on those numbers, "you would then expect that in the long run, population would decrease," said Caribert Irazi, demographer in population projections for the Census Bureau

Connecticut is in the midst of a school building boom that, at first glance, would appear to be a huge mismatch with census projections that say the state will have 28,000 fewer children and teenagers under the age of 18 in 2010 than it had in 2000.

In fiscal 2002 alone, the legislature authorized $1.95 billion in school construction; the state expects to provide $1.3 billion of that in grants.

But David Wedge, manager of the office of school facilities for the state Department of Education, said factors other than the state's total student population drive school projects.

Many of the state's schools date from the 1950s and 1960s, when the baby boomers were crowding the public schools, and many of those buildings were built to a lower standard and now need to be renovated or replaced, he said. The state's population is also spreading from urban centers, even as the state's overall growth is expected to slow, and when people move into a new area, someone has to build schools.

"You take any of the peripheral towns, they are growing like crazy," Wedge said. "That's not because of a general population increase; that's because of migration."

Although the Census Bureau churns through massive amounts of data to develop its projections, they are based on the assumption that current economic and social patterns will echo into the future. And even the bureau acknowledges that assumption never holds completely true.

"There are events that we cannot really predict," said Irazi, the census demographer.

A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Mike Swift is scheduled to air on New England Cable News each hour today between 9 a.m. and noon.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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