News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

June 23, 2011

MARK BENNETT: County’s prime working-age population needs replenished

TERRE HAUTE — At least they mean well.

So often, you’ll hear an adult try to inspire activity in a listless high school kid by saying, “These are the best years of your life.” That’s the last thought an anxious teenager wants rattling through his or her mind on graduation day — “It’s all downhill from here?”

Actually, the opposite should be the goal. Ideally, school prepares young folks for better days and years ahead, their “prime time of life.”

Each of us might define his “prime” differently. While the body may slow over time, the mind gets wiser (for most people, that is.) So, depending on one’s view, that peak could be 25, 30, 40, 50 or 60 and beyond. For the optimistic, their prime is always the current year.

Demographers — experts who study the trends and behavior of people of various age, gender and ethic groups — are more definitive. Most demographers consider the prime working years of Americans to occur between the ages of 25 and 54. Of course, there are always exceptions. Many 23-year-olds possess more maturity and responsibility than some 48-year-olds. Still, the 25-to-54 crowd typically earns the “prime working age” label.

Thus, logically, the sweet-spot of a career would, on average, arrive in the middle of that 20-year span, between birthdays No. 35 and 44.

If so, Vigo County’s labor force is not as ready for prime time as it was a decade ago.

The number of Vigo Countians in the 35-to-44 age bracket shrank by 1,863 between 2000 and 2010, according to recently released U.S. Census figures. That’s the equivalent of the entire student population of Terre Haute South Vigo High School. The decrease in prime working-age residents becomes even more glaring when you consider the expansion at the Federal Correctional Complex in the middle of the past decade boosted the county’s overall population through 1,487 additional inmates. Those extra prisoners ages 35 to 44 would pad that age group’s numbers, yet it dwindled drastically.

A total of 15,148 35-to-44-year-olds lived in Vigo County when the 2000 Census was conducted. In the 2010 Census, the 35-to-44 group totaled just 13,285.

So what gives?

“That’s directly related to the Baby Boom generation followed by the Baby Bust generation,” said Matt Kinghorn, demographer for the Indiana Business Research Center.

Yes, my generation continues to unsettle the status quo in everything from TV programming to Medicare. The passage of 76 million Americans, born between the end of World War II and The Beatles invasion, from youth to middle age to retirement causes endless changes. And, to be sure, Vigo County is not alone in seeing its prime working-age population plummet. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Americans 35 to 39 dropped 11.1 percent, and the 40-to-44 demographic decreased by 6.9 percent.

But Vigo County’s predicament is compounded by other trends revealed by the 2010 Census.

Remember all that talk about how the Great Recession was really a “man-cession,” affecting primarily male-dominated industries? The most stable sector of the U.S. workforce during that 2007-09 downturn was women. Well, unfortunately for Vigo County, its prime working-age female population got much smaller during the past decade. Women inordinately account for a whopping 70 percent of the county’s decline in 35-to-44-year-olds — 1,307 females, compared to 556 males. That shift limits this community’s ability to recover from the man-cession. It also creates another problem the county will feel for many years.

Fewer working women means fewer working moms. And fewer children. Nationally, almost every segment of the youth population grew. (Kids under 5 were up 5.3 percent, 5 to 9 down 1 percent, 10 to 14 up 0.7 percent, and 15 to 19 up 9 percent.) But in Vigo County, each of those age groups decreased. The county had 1,401 fewer kids ages 19-and-under in 2010 than a decade earlier. At Chauncey Rose Middle School, for example, student enrollment has fallen from 672 in 1999-2000 to a projected 298 this fall. That school will close next year, in part due to the declining student population.

The county needs to find ways to attract more prime working-age women. And while that may sound like an ad strategy for eharmony

.com, the implications of letting this trend go unattended are quite serious. That gap in the local labor force might cause potential employers to hesitate when considering Vigo County. Likewise, the decline in school-age population forces hard changes in the otherwise healthy Vigo County School Corp.

The county made lots of progress during the past decade, and if that upward climb continues, then nobody can say this community’s best days are behind it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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