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State must address decrease in working-age residents


“Will you still need me; will you still feed me; when I’m 64?”

I was 8 years old when the Beatles released that song in 1967, and it seemed quite probable to me then that I would need help feeding myself by the time I hit 64. If I hit 64.

The average life expectancy for men at that time was 66.8 years, and I had good reason to believe I would come in under the average.

My dad had a massive heart attack when he was just 50 years old. It probably would have killed him had it happened 10 years earlier. Doctors at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver used what were then experimental, cutting-edge procedures to save his life. Those same procedures, refined and improved over the years, now save thousands of lives every day.

My 64th birthday is this week, and I’m happy to report that I’m still able to eat without assistance.

Lots of folks who would have died at a younger age in the past are alive, healthy and looking forward to the future. In 1990, there were 3.1 million Americans aged 65 or older. Today there are 54.1 million.

Thanks to progressive policies giving us Social Security (passed in 1935) and Medicare (passed in 1965), we are not only living longer lives, we are living better lives. Before Social Security, roughly half of all seniors were living in poverty. Today, it’s about 10 percent.

That population shift is happening faster in New Mexico than most states. By the end of the decade, we’re expected to be fourth in the nation in the percentage of population age 65 and older. Legislation passed this year to end state income taxes on Social Security benefits will undoubtedly make our state even more attractive to retirees.

The growth in our senior population is coming at the same time that younger residents are leaving the state. New Mexico grew by just 2.8 percent overall in the last decade, compared to the national average of 7.4 percent, according to the most recent Census. Neighboring states had a growth rate of 14.2 percent.

Our working-age population (18-64) fell by 2 percent, while the senior population grew by 38 percent, according to a report by the state Legislature. We’ve had a net migration of working-age residents every year since 2012, and our birth rate is down by 21 percent since 2010. The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse, driving more people out of the state and away from the rural areas.

The only reason we’re growing at all is that people are living longer. But even with that, we’re expected to peak in 2035, and then start losing population in the following years.

The population decrease among working-age residents would have been greeter if not for oil and gas drilling in the Permian Basin. That will only make the challenge for our state more difficult as the nation shifts to cleaner energy sources.

These trends will present an enormous challenge for the state in the years ahead as more residents demand services without contributing to the workforce. The solution is not to discourage retirees from moving here, but rather to ensure that the young men and women graduating from our high schools and universities have the jobs they need to stay here.

We’ve been talking about ending the “brain drain” ever since I moved here 20 years ago. Our survival as a vibrant, healthy state now depends on it.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com