Senior Moments

Michigan’s population of residents 65 and over is steadily increasing. But businesses can tap into their experience and education rather than stressing age.
Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock

Old is trendy. The number of Michiganians age 65-plus will rocket about 30 percent in the next few years, while other age groups dwindle. Yes, it’s those baby boomers again. And demographers are scrambling to define exactly how the pending senior tsunami will rock society’s boat.

By 2035, the number of metro Detroit residents who are 65 and over is projected to account for 24 percent of the population in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. That’s double the 12 percent in 1991. Meanwhile, state and local officials are working to retain and attract young working families amid the auto-industry meltdown. An abundance of seniors can be either a problem or resource. And the race is on to maximize the latter.

Some say 70 is the new 50. And, certainly, senior is no longer synonymous with “out to pasture.” After all, 78-year-old Clint Eastwood engineered the box-office hit Gran Torino. At age 82, Cloris Leachman still makes movies, not to mention her feisty, raunchy, testimonial during a televised roast of Bob Saget. And Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who is 70, opened the new year by considering a run for governor.

Then there’s Westminster’s top dog, Stump — age 70 in human years, or enough to be the AARP poster pooch. The Sussex spaniel came out of retirement in February to win Best in Show at the annual Kennel Club competition in New York.

Stump’s success symbolizes what futurists hope to do with boomers moving toward retirement: Make use of experience. “This is going to change the character of our community,” says Larry Coppard, senior consultant for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. “It’s going to create some challenges. But the flip side is there’s an enormous capacity and resource there with all these people who are retiring, who are well-educated and who have resources.”

For Coppard, the challenge will be to “engage those folks, either as volunteers or as employees in a second career.” He won’t have trouble finding prospects. Michigan’s over-65 crowd will grow by nearly 3 percent a year, while the number of school-age (5-17) children in the state drops by around 1.5 percent annually through 2017, according to Citizens Research Council, a nonpartisan think tank based out of Livonia and Lansing.

“Basically, the over-65 age group between 2007 and 2017 will increase by about 31 percent,” says Craig Thiel, director of state affairs for the council. “At the same time, all the other age cohorts — school age, working age — those groups all decline.”

Last May, the Research Council reported dark clouds over Michigan’s fiscal future, months before the national economic crisis. “The basic conclusion of that report was: Major problems on the horizon in terms of funding services,” Thiel says. “The problems are exacerbated and even worse today.”

Demographer Kurt Metzger says an aging populace may be more of an issue in Michigan than elsewhere. “We can’t seem to keep recent college graduates and can’t seem to attract 25-to 34-year-olds in any great numbers,” says Metzger, director of the new Detroit Area Community Information Center. “While Florida is getting younger, we’re getting older. It’s interesting and worrisome at the same time.”

Michelle Webster, a business broker in Ann Arbor, sees signs of demographic change. “I help people buy and sell businesses for a living,” says Webster, of Marketpoint Associates. “Anything related to senior services, whether it be assisted living or medical kinds of things, we find those kinds of businesses are a quick sell.”

Webster also chairs the Ann Arbor chapter of Counselors of America’s Small Business, formerly SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). Nationally, more than 11,000 executives — some retired, some still working — donate their time to advise businesses for free. That makes the Counselors a pioneer in tapping experience of retirees.

Another group, Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), has room for seniors in its push to revitalize the Rust Belt. Seniors bring first-hand history of what went right and wrong in the past, says GLUE director and co-founder Sarah Szurpicki.

The first boomers, born in 1946, won’t be 65 until 2011. Most will be women, extrapolating from the 2000 census, which reported that 58 percent of the over-65 crowd is female.

“It’s a huge bubble of people who are going to become seniors,” says Michael C. Walker, author of the business book Marketing to Seniors. “Let’s use the age 60. By 2025, the national population of people 60 and over is going to be about 85 million. Today, it’s about 50 million. By 2030, it’s going be about 92 million. So you’re talking large numbers. There are a lot of concerns about the viability of Social Security and Medicare as this group moves through the system.”

Walker also sees plenty of opportunity for business as the baby boomers age, particularly in health care, financial planning, and clothing. Clothing? “We’re finding that people today are more active, say, at age 65 and up, than they were 10 to 20 years ago,” Walker says. “Leisure opportunities are far more prevalent than they were then and even earlier.”

Kenneth Darga, demographer for the state of Michigan, says that besides the baby boom, other factors could also play a role in the size of Michigan’s senior population. “On the one hand, there are a lot of people taking early retirements, which would put them at risk of migrating to the Sun Belt,” he says. “On the other hand, you have the inability to sell houses and get mortgages to buy houses, inability to build houses, and that might reduce [the number of people who move]. In the recession of the 1980s, there was a decrease in out-migration of seniors to the Sun Belt. And it’s possible that could happen again with this recession.”

Darga adds this: Michigan tends to have net out-migration for this age group even in normal years, since many Michigan retirees spend all or part of the year in Sun Belt states. The Census Bureau’s latest estimates suggest that this net out-migration of seniors increased each year from 2003 through 2007, and then decreased in 2008 to about the same level as 2005.

Coppard, the Community Foundation consultant, urges companies to start now reaching out to seniors as a resource. When talent meets opportunity, sparks can fly, as Stump the wonder dog would confirm — if he could.