Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 4:00 PM on Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Alaska's older workers stay on jobs

BY Hal Spence
For the Homer News

Alaska's aging population is growing rapidly and an increasing number of those over 65 are choosing to remain part of the state's workforce, according to state demographers.

In the August issue of Alaska Economic Trends, a monthly review of state economic and labor data published by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, demographer Eddie Hunsinger used census data to demonstrate how Alaska's "baby boomers" are shaping the state's aging population.

About 37 percent of Homer's workforce over 50

Private and government employers in the city of Homer put some 2,073 city residents to work in 2011, 765 of whom (about 37 percent) were more than 50 years of age, according to information from the Alaska Department of Labor.

More women (1,092) than men (981) made up Homer's labor force, earning wages in the neighborhood of $65.1 million. Some 1,596 earned their livings working in the private sector, while 478 held jobs in local and state government offices. Of those, 238 were older than 50.

Teachers and instructors (77) comprised the largest subsector of the work force; of those 39 were more than 50.

According to the 2010 Census, Homer's population in 2010 was 5,003, and that included 724 people older than 65. Labor data did not indicate how many of those older than 65 were working. Only the "over 50" data was available, and presumably the majority of those would have been between 50 and 64.

As far as city households were concerned, 89 men and 157 females older than 65 lived alone, according to the census data. There were 568 city households including an individual older than 65.

Baby boomers comprise the population born between 1946 and 1964, thousands of whom came here during the 1970s and early 1980s as Alaska's economy rapidly expanded during and after the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Many stayed. They began turning 65 in 2011.

The number of workers between 55 and 64 in the labor force tends to drop as people retire, Hunsinger said. But census data since 1970 show Alaska seniors at 65 are more likely to be working than their Outside counterparts, "and the rate of (Alaska) seniors in the workforce is on the rise," he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1970 fully 28 percent of Alaskans 65 and over held jobs, compared to just 16 percent for the United States as a whole.

That rate fell to as low as 14 percent during the next three decades, though it consistently remained above the national average.

By the 2000 census, however, the percentage of seniors continuing to work beyond 65 years of age began to increase again.

"The major causes (for the period of fall-off) may have been a large cohort of baby boomers competing for jobs, or that financially it was a good time to retire," Hunsinger said.

"The trend has shifted since then, though, and the labor force participation (by seniors) grew to 22 percent in Alaska between 2006 and 2010."

Hard times may be a cause for the increase. So might the fact that many seniors reaching 65 are healthy and not ready to retire.

"This is not based on any specific analysis, but my hunch is that it involves a bunch of those kinds of factors and others that aren't easy to look at," Hunsinger said during a phone interview Aug. 13.

"I hear from different people the same stories: that work is important financially, but also ... they like and are able to work."

Alaska's labor force statistics do not include senior volunteer or subsistence work, or the work involved in the care of family members by seniors. Assigning monetary values to those factors is difficult, but various state and federal government data sources can at least paint a picture.

For instance, according to the federal Bureau of Labor, 9.5 million people 65 and older (about 24 percent of the national population) volunteered an average of 96 hours each in 2011. No figures were available specific to Alaska's seniors, but the overall volunteer rate in Alaska in 2010, according to the federal Corporation for National & Community Service, was 29.2 percent, wherein almost 153,000 residents of all ages volunteered more than 24 million hours through nonprofits or community organizations.

As for the value of subsistence, a 2010 Alaska Fish & Game report estimated that replacing the annual subsistence harvest of fish and game with commercial products would have cost users between $134 million and $268 million.

The median age of Alaskans is 33.8 years, making us the third youngest state in the nation behind Utah and Texas. But while those 65 and older represented only 7.7 percent of Alaska's population in 2010, that same demographic was growing faster than in any other state in the union, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Indeed, bureau data show that Alaska had just 12,000 seniors in 1980, but 55,000 by 2010. By 2030, that figure is expected to rise to almost 150,000, reaching 17 percent of that year's statewide population.

So what does this all mean?

For one thing, a growing aged population will require increasing amounts of services, especially medical services for higher rates of disabilities over time. In the forward to the August issue of Trends, Alaska Labor Commissioner Dianne Blumer noted that the needs of aging workers have provided a boost to the health-care industry.

"In the last 10 years the health-care industry has created about 10,000 new jobs in Alaska, more than any other industry in the state," she said.

"Based on the increase in the number of folks who are 65-plus, we expect the number of jobs in the health care industry will grow 26.5 percent from 2008 to 2018, the current 10-year forecast."

For another, while senior populations are growing everywhere in the state, there is a detectable trend for seniors to move to "urban" areas as they get older, which could have an impact on city services, economics and possibly politics.

Here the state uses a somewhat liberal interpretation of "urban" under which the Anchorage/Mat-Su area, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Juneau are ranked as "urban." Furthermore, Hunsinger said, the growth of aging populations in any specific location is driven far more by the passage of time than by migration.

"There is this flow from off-the-road areas," he said, "But it is not massive and it is not as big as the effect of aging."

Nevertheless, those packing up their belongings and moving to the urban regions from the Bush do represent an important factor, he said, adding that those not ready to abandon their rural lifestyles at 65 may do so by 80.

Thus, as the baby boomers continue to reach the senior threshold and beyond, the trend toward urban dwelling may increase, Hunsinger said.

In terms of economics, while seniors may work less, their incomes are important to state and local economies, Hunsinger said. The average Alaska senior-led household had an annual income of almost $45,500 between 2006 and 2010, roughly $20,000 a year lower than the overall average household income, but still substantially higher than the average senior household nationally where annual income was only about $34,000.

The above figures do not reflect senior savings, Hunsinger said. However, according to the most recent national data available, in 2007 Alaska ranked 16th among all 50 states in the propensity of its population to set aside a nest egg (regular savings, CDs, 401Ks, etc). Alaska's "nest egg" index was 103.46, much closer to the cautious parsimony of New Jersey residents (114.3) than to those in Mississippi, who registered just under 85.5.

Hal Spence is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.