Census: LI ages as its labor pool shrinks

The latest Census figures show that the 65-and-older population has grown on Long Island, but many older residents say they're planning to move when they retire. Videojournalists: Meredith Daniels and Jon Premosch (May 11, 2011)

Long Island is getting older while its prime working-age population is shrinking -- powerful trends that can affect everything from the vitality of the labor force to housing and medical care.

The Island's 65-and-older population grew by more than 10 percent in the past decade, faster than the national average, according to new 2010 census figures released Thursday.

Over the same period, the number of people between the ages of 25 and 44 thinned -- from 823,933 (30.1 percent) to 700,214 (24.7 percent).

Experts, who expect the trends to continue, warned of potential sweeping implications.

"If there are fewer young people replacing retiring workers, business may not have the labor force it needs to grow on Long Island," said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group.

Pre-recession projections warning of mass retirements of baby boomers, however, will likely turn out to be overstated. Many of those eligible for retirement will work longer, Kamer said, to "shore up their finances."

The dip in the Long Island birthrate in the 1970s explains part of the labor pool shrinkage, but Kamer said younger workers are also leaving because of high taxes and limited affordable housing.

Mark Gimbl, 34, took a job transfer to Delaware, leaving Long Island two years ago. "I was working all the time and just surviving on Long Island," he said. Gimbl said he rented the bottom half of a split-level ranch in Deer Park for $900 a month. In a Wilmington suburb, he now owns a four-bedroom colonial and relishes income taxes and property taxes that are relatively low.

"When my friends from Long Island come down to visit," he said, "they don't want to leave."

Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council, was encouraged by gains in the 45-to-59 age group, which grew from 19.5 percent of the population in 2000 to 23 percent in 2010.

Those workers are "hitting their prime productive years," he said. "There should be some economic advantage to having the most experienced, highest-earning workers here."

The graying trend, though, has caused the Island's median age to rise from 32 in 1980 to 37.5 in 2000 to 40.5 in 2010.

The percentage of Long Islanders 65 and older has edged up, from 13.3 percent in 2000 to 14.4 percent in 2010. The 85-and-older population grew by more than 46 percent in the past decade, from 42,211 (1.5 percent) to 61,898 (2.2 percent).

At 87, Ann Niemczyk is proud to be part of that group. She resisted entreaties from friends to move to Florida after her husband died, downsizing instead from a three-bedroom house in Laurelton, Queens, to a one-bedroom condo in Amityville.

Today, the great-grandmother has a busy schedule at the North Amityville Senior Center: bridge on Mondays; Scrabble on Tuesdays; canasta on Fridays. She also likes lunching with friends and plans to start a knitting circle. "I would never want to move away now," she said.

Government officials said there are many elderly people like Niemczyk staying put, leading to an expansion of in-home health aide services and senior housing.

With two generations of seniors to serve -- baby boomers and their elderly parents -- governments, nonprofits, schools, religious groups and others need to pitch in, said Lisa Murphy, Nassau County acting commissioner for the Department of Senior Citizens Affairs.

"The government isn't going to be able to take care of everyone," she said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the area has seen an infusion of privately developed housing for seniors along the Middle Road corridor. In the past decade, the town's 65-and-older population jumped 27 percent, to 6,498 people -- and now represents one out of five residents.

Walter said he hopes the town can develop a "full gamut of housing opportunities" for seniors, including more assisted-living facilities.

The cost to local government may not be as great as some fear, Stony Brook University economics professor Warren Sanderson said, because people are living longer, healthier lives.

"Demands [for services] are not going to expand in proportion to the number of people 65 and over," he said.

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