Connecting the dots

Every once in a while, I come across people who know about CommonWealth, but have no idea it is published by MassINC. Others know full well that CommonWealth is a MassINC publication, but wonder why the magazine doesn’t focus on our research findings. Both sorts of confusion can be explained by the way MassINC does its work. MassINC pursues its mission along parallel tracks – research, journalism, and civic engagement. Each has its own strengths. MassINC’s research goes deep, CommonWealth goes broad, and public events reach out. For the most part, this is a good thing. Still, this modus operandi provides few opportunities to step back and integrate the three strands of our work. I hope to use this space to do just that.

Opportunity and financial security in the midst of sweeping economic change and major demographic shifts are persistent themes of MassINC’s research, journalism, and events. Our New Skills for a New Economy research identified a critical skills gap for a third of our workers as they face the more demanding modern workplace. CommonWealth fleshed out the human face of a changing economy with “Blue Collar Blues,” documenting the decline of manufacturing jobs (Spring ’04); “Offshore Currents,” which explored the spread of offshoring to higher-end jobs (Summer ’04); and “Technology Upgrade” (Summer ’04), a look at IT workers as they tried to adapt to the new industries of biotechnology and microelectronics.

These changes in employment are happening at a time of demographic upheaval. MassINC research has shown that our state’s workforce is growing only slowly. Indeed, were it not for a steady stream of international immigration, our labor supply would be shrinking. At the same time, our recent research on interstate migration suggests that while Massachusetts continues to attract highly skilled younger workers, we see signs of growing middle-class flight – to other New England states, as well as Florida, Arizona, and Georgia.

One reason for this flight is the cost of housing. Massachusetts has a relatively low rate of homeownership, and CommonWealth‘s “Anti-Family Values” (Spring ’02) showed some of the reasons why: Average families can’t afford average homes anymore because, increasingly, many cities and towns don’t want them. In a series of maps developed and published in cooperation with the Boston Sunday Globe’s Ideas section, what we see – and our research on commuting bears out – is that families seem to be moving farther and farther away from Boston in order to find towns with the basket of goods they seek: affordable housing, good schools, and safe neighborhoods. The middle-class frontier is moving steadily outward, with no end in sight.

All this is happening as the biggest demographic change of our time is bearing down on us. Nearly 2 million Bay State baby boomers will start retiring in the next five years. Our recent research report, The Graying of Massachusetts, showed that many will reach that milestone unprepared, in part because the rules of retirement are rapidly changing: fewer traditional pensions, more reliance on 401(k)-style plans, and shifts in Social Security eligibility and benefits. With savings rates at historic lows, there is reason to think that individuals will have to remain in the workforce longer than expected. But we don’t know how quickly the coming retirement wave will start having its impact on our labor market, which already faces pressure from cost of living, outmigration, and the skills gap.

What does all this mean to the Commonwealth, and to us at MassINC? Are we headed toward calamity? Perhaps, but not necessarily. The Bay State has been in tough straits before and always pulled out of them, with a mix of luck and pluck. Still, we should not leave these things to chance. For starters, we need to understand better the implications of the baby boom generation’s impending retirement. In the light of more dramatic change on the way, we need to redouble our efforts to attract and retain – and build the skills of – a thriving workforce. We also need to reach out and draw young people into civic life. As they put down roots and engage in their communities, our Commonwealth grows stronger and better prepared for change.

Meet the Author
Massachusetts’s competitive advantage lies in having the most highly educated and skilled workforce in the nation. At the same time, we cannot afford to have Massachusetts become a place where the workers we need cannot afford to live. Average families are now faced with difficult choices if they want to achieve the American Dream of homeownership, quality schools, economic opportunity, safe neighborhoods, and quality of life. With a hard-fought election season behind us, a new year brings new opportunity to address these challenges – and prepare ourselves for greater change to come.

   Ian Bowles