My Turn: Senior citizens are vital to Alaska's future

Posted: Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Retiring in Alaska has never been popular or easy. High cost of living, weather and recent reductions in benefits have hastened the exit from the state. That appears to be rapidly changing. A number of recent studies revealed a reversal of this trend in Alaska as well as in other "outflow" states. In some states like Alaska, there is still a net outflow of seniors but a greater number of retirees are staying to live out their retirement here. The last census indicates that as the Baby Boom generation approaches retirement, many of them are retiring later in life and settling in their home states.

This appears to be even truer here in Alaska. In Alaska, 92 percent of Alaska seniors surveyed in 2000 said they would like to remain in Alaska indefinitely. To do this, seniors plan on working longer to deal with the high cost of living and the new Social Security age scale. Many did not realize that 65 is not the magic age it was. To obtain full Social Security a worker will eventually have to work until 67 or longer.

A recent article in the Juneau Empire shows how important it will be to have older workers in Juneau. The article quoted an economist stating that the key to growth is a young wage earner moving to Juneau. With out-of-state industries matching salary levels, lower cost of living and the recent reduction in both health and retirement benefits in Alaska, one should not expect a stampede of youth any time soon. A McDowell study of Alaska's aging population projects an increase of 300 percent between 2000 and 2025. Seniors will become 20 percent of Alaska's total population during that period. Their numbers will increase from 50,600 to 165,000 and make them the most politically and economically powerful group in Alaska.

Last year's legislative report on seniors outlines the tremendous economic influence this group has on today's economy. The report concluded that the over-60 population is one the state's largest basic "industries" today. The pensions, payments and medical benefits of those individuals living here now bring in $1.2 billion of outside money. This is money not generated here but that flows in to Alaska's businesses and services industries. Economists estimate this type of income to the state acts as an economic multiplier doubling its impact the economy. The income is not seasonal and provides the state a consistent cash flow. This kind of income rivals tourism, mining and seafood as a separate industry. With the projected growth rate greater than any other industry, seniors have become the most valuable economic factor contributing to financial stability of our state and community.

Keeping seniors in state will also create future jobs among the largest employers in our state. Health care presently employs more Alaskans than any other industry group. As seniors age they utilize the health-care system more. The over-70 age group utilizes the health-care system at a rate of four times those under 65. Health care will continue to be a growth industry in Alaska if the in state retirement trend continues.

State and local government as well as private industry need to work together to make it easier for seniors to live here. It is in the best interest of everyone to keep this population happy. Local tax breaks and states services should be seen as economic incentives to keep this group here and not as benefits to a special population.

September is the month we honor labor with a special day off. Sept. 18 through 24 is Older Workers Week. Older workers provide a dependable, experienced and skilled work force. Consider hiring a true Alaskan who will be here when you need him or her. Research has shown that the longer someone lives in a community, the more likely they are to live out their life there. In addition, seniors are just great people to have around.

• Matt Felix is director of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence in Juneau.

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