GRAYING heartland struggles to retain young workers

Thursday, May 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Young adults are moving away from small cities and towns in America's heartland, leaving behind elderly residents and officials struggling to prevent their communities from eroding into modern-day ghost towns.

Some movers sought warmer winters, while many others left for a job. Whatever the reason, they are following a path out of the region that has been well-traveled for decades.

New 2000 census figures spotlight this trend during a decade in which population increased across the South and West, as well as some urban centers in the Midwest.

For instance, of the 99 counties in which 4 percent of residents were 85 or older, all but two (in Virginia and Florida) are in the Great Plains. Most of them are in rural areas.

Nationally, 1.5 percent of Americans are 85 or older.

``There is a swath of rural and small towns that are on the potential 'ghost town' list, destined to a virtual demographic extinction,'' University of Michigan demographer William Frey said. ``It's likely many of these towns will simply die out, as fewer young people remain or locate there.''

The Great Plains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, stretch from North Dakota and parts of Montana and Minnesota south into central Texas and a portion of eastern New Mexico.

Americans age 65 and over make up 12.4 percent of the U.S. population. Florida, a longtime destination for new retirees, had the highest percentage among states, at 17.6 percent.

Among counties, Charlotte County, a retirement destination in southwest Florida, had the highest percentage of people over 65 at 34.7 percent. Like many other counties in Florida and across the Sun Belt, it saw an increase in the number of married-couple households raising children under 18.

Of the 99 counties, only Dickey County in North Dakota had more than the national average of 6.7 percent of its population between ages 20 and 24. All 99 counties had less than the national average of 14.2 percent of their populations between ages 25 and 34.

All but six of the 99 counties had decreases in the number of married-with-children households.

About 27 percent of the population of Cheyenne County, Kan., are 65 or older, while the county saw a slight decline during the decade of married-with-children families.

Each are signs that younger adults and teens are continuing to leave for jobs elsewhere, demographers said.

``We are all concerned about it. We are getting old, and the children well, ... there's not much to bring them back here,'' said Elmer Kellner, 66, a retired financial benefits specialist from St. Francis, in Cheyenne County. His two daughters live outside of Kansas City, Kan.; his son helps Kellner's 93-year-old father farm in another part of the state.

Among all states, North Dakota had the highest percentage of people 85 and older, 2.3 percent. In McIntosh County, N.D. 6.6, percent of residents were 85 or older, highest among all counties.

The figures pose two pressing problems, said the state's demographer, Richard Rathge: providing adequate social services and assistance to seniors who are spread out over wide rural areas and finding new ways to spur struggling economies.

Part of the solution, officials say, may be to lure back Baby Boomers who left decades ago, but are now approaching retirement and looking to settle down closer to their roots.

Other places, such as Ashley, N.D., in McIntosh County, have tried to cash in on the high-tech boom.

Jason Dockter, 35, is a rarity. After college, he returned to Ashley to manage one of the few new businesses to open in town the last few years, a small technology firm.

``There aren't a whole lot of people returning to Ashley because the jobs aren't here,'' Dockter said. ``So technology is a very important factor to bring back young people with those skills.''