Joe Eaton is a former reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, the Washington City Paper, and the Roanoke Times. He now teaches at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
In fast-aging pockets of rural America, older residents are going back to work. But not always because they need the money.
At 86, Bob Bastion would be forgiven for sleeping in on the recent subzero mornings in Alcona County, Michigan, a one-stoplight former timber community of around 10,000 in the northeast part of the state’s lower peninsula.
Instead, the retired dairy truck driver often wakes up at 3 a.m., climbs five feet into the seat of a six-wheel Champion road grader and drives the roads of Lost Lake Woods Club, the private gated community and resort where he lives with his wife, clearing snow so cars can get through. It often takes eight hours or more.
On his belt, Bastion wears a Motorola emergency pager, because, in addition to running the grader, he’s also a volunteer firefighter. He no longer suits up in 50 pounds of turnout gear to fight fires, but when the alarm is given, he often drives the 2,100-gallon tanker truck.
“I’m not here for the paychecks,” Bastion told me when I visited him in Alcona in 2016. This winter, I checked in with him and found him in good health and still on the job. He attributes his robust condition to hard work and good whiskey. “I do it because I like it,” he said. “It keeps me going. You can’t just sit in the chair watching TV. It’s not good for you.”
Like so many older Americans who find themselves still clocking into jobs past traditional retirement ages, some among Alcona County’s graying workforce are working because of economic necessity. But they’re also working because the town needs them to stay on the job. This rural corner of the Upper Midwest is one of the oldest places in America. The median age here is 58, according to a 2017 U.S. Census estimate, 20 years older than the median age of the country. More than half of residents in Alcona County are 55 and older. The region serves as an extreme example of a phenomenon that’s happening across the country as the vast Baby Boom generation moves through the retirement years.
It’s a situation with many parallels in other countries, especially in societies such as Japan’s, where low birth rates, limited immigration, and urbanization trends have conspired to trigger mass depopulation of smaller rural towns. In the U.S., the age wave is also set to hit rural areas first: 19 percent of the rural population is 65 and older, compared to 15 percent in urban areas, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture study of census data. Rural counties make up nearly 85 percent of the more than 1,100 counties with more than 20 percent of their population age 65 or older.
John Cromartie, a demographer with the USDA Agriculture Economic Research Service who studies population trends in rural America, says communities like Alcona County offer a lesson for aging rural communities across the country that need to find a way to function with an aging population. “They are the canary in the coal mine,” Cromartie says.
The aging of rural America means essential physical work once performed by the young has fallen to folks like Bastion—residents long past traditional retirement age. He moved to Lost Lake Woods in 1998 from a town outside Flint, bringing with him his job experience fighting fires and operating heavy equipment. Once a club administrator learned Bastion knew how to run a road grader, retirement was over: He has been plowing the roads ever since.
At the Alcona Township Fire Department, where Bastion is a member, nearly a third of 15 volunteer firefighters are retired. An octogenarian serves on the county board of commissioners. An 86-year-old priest officiates four masses at four county churches every weekend. “We can’t function without the help of retired people,” said Ralph Klotz, 76, who has been Alcona Township’s fire chief since 1997. It’s hard to find young people to volunteer for the department, and hard to keep them when they do, he told me. “I’ve advertised for help, but nobody comes near.”
Alcona isn’t getting any younger: From 2010 to 2017, the township experienced more than 1,300 deaths, but fewer than 450 births, according to Cromartie’s estimates. Klotz wonders what will happen to the department when he needs to stop working. “Time might come when I have to retire, because of my age and all,” he said. “For now, I’m still kicking.”
At a Friday fish fry at Saint Anne Catholic Church, a postcard town with quaint shops that sits on Lake Huron, locals noted a lack of jobs for young people as one reason many of the diminishing number of children raised in the area flee soon after high school graduation.
“They used to go downstate to the auto industry, but now that is kind of dried-up, too,” said Alan Baldwin, a retired logger. Baldwin grew up on a farm and he traces his ancestors back at least four generations to the same patch of land. But his son lives in North Carolina, where he went for work. As a child, Baldwin says the crossroads town in Alcona County where he grew up had plenty of shops and restaurants. Now it’s now almost empty. “They moved the town a mile up the road and made it a BP station,” he said.
The migration of the young away from Alcona County is only part of the story.
Towns get old in different ways. Some are gray be design—places like The Villages in Florida, long the nation’s fastest growing metro. These are retirement enclaves where the elderly arrive from elsewhere in search of lower taxes and lifestyle amenities. Economic distress hastens the aging process for other smaller towns and cities, especially in deindustrialized parts of the Rust Belt, where younger residents are encouraged to move to more urban communities in search of education and jobs.
Then there is a third type, where both happen at once.
That’s Alcona, where young people are fleeing even as new retirees are lured in, drawn by the low cost of living and plentiful hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. In the 1990s, the number of people aged 60 to 64 in the county nearly doubled, and many came via migration, according to U.S. Census data analyzed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin.
When retirees move in, they bring their skills with them, says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire who studies migration trends. He knows of a former Fortune 100 CFO working as a small-town treasurer and plenty of retired lawyers providing free legal work to town governments. In blue-collar retirement destinations like Alcona County, they’re also doing hands-on work. “This is important, because among the younger people who do stay, many are driving 40 or 50 minutes to jobs,” Johnson says. “That means they are gone most of the day, and there are limited people to do these jobs.”
Depending on retirees to shoulder the day-to-day responsibilities of road maintenance is no long-term solution, however: These towns will need to attract younger residents and lure back their best and brightest, who are often the first to leave.
Many younger Alcona County residents insist it’s a great place to live—if you can find work. Hallie Richter, 45, moved to Lost Lake Woods in 2015 from a town 40 miles north of Detroit, after her husband was tapped to open a store for the Midwestern grocery chain Meijer in nearby Alpena. A data analyst who works from home, Richter said they were excited for the change of pace.
There were drawbacks. Richter’s 18-year-old daughter is one of a handful of children who grew up in a subdivision at the club. Social events tend to be scheduled on retiree time—game night for women, for example, is on Tuesday afternoons. But she enjoys the tight community feel of small-town rural America. “This was our retirement plan for someday,” she said. “We are thrilled to get to come earlier.”
But Richter’s story is a rare one. And unless gray communities can attract more people like her, they’ll have to continue to lean on retirees like Bastion to function.
Years ago, Bastion’s coworkers joked that 90 is mandatory retirement age for road graders. Now, he’s creeping up against that number, and it doesn’t seem like such a joke. But not to worry: He has an eye on a replacement—a recent retiree.
“It’s time I should be letting the kids do it,” he said.