Here are three possible scenarios…
Business as Usual
One possibility is that the economic and demographic trends of the past several decades continue, the most challenging of which is our aging population. With the oldest workforce in the nation, the impending baby boomer retirement wave this country faces, dubbed the “Silver Tsunami”, has already crashed upon our shores.
Continued mechanization and offshoring, particularly in the natural resource industries, carries on unabated, leading to fewer and fewer good paying jobs in rural Maine. There are flickers of growth in tourism, health care, and some innovation-related industries such as biotech, but a lack of critical mass prevents these sectors from growing significantly. Too many young people continue to leave Maine, and not nearly enough younger professionals from other areas seriously consider moving their families here, even as Maine continues to be an amazing place for them to spend their vacations.
Communities throughout rural Maine, caught in a spiral of diminishing jobs, population, tax revenue and services, slip further into poverty and isolation. While a few southern coastal counties are doing okay, the rest of Maine struggles economically and socially.
Attracting and Fostering Economic Investment
Another possible scenario for Maine leading up to 2030 is that traditional economic development “fixes” are tried here on a much, much bigger scale, aiming to reverse the current trends.
In this scenario, Maine invests massively in higher education, workforce development and tax breaks meant to lure high-tech manufacturing, although these strategies are extremely expensive and require significant shifts in cultural attitudes surrounding education and various types of work. Furthermore, the approach leaves Maine jobs and income in a tenuous position, because high-tech firms that move to Maine can just as easily depart anytime thereafter.
Grassroots efforts by townspeople in scattered places in rural Maine identify assets and small-scale economic opportunities. Communities are rightly proud of their occasional development successes, however, limitations in three key areas—infrastructure, education in entrepreneurship, and access to start-up capital—mean these “bootstrap” efforts are frequently too little and too late to meet the needs of most Mainers. They produce some success, but we need to combine them with new approaches, because Maine’s economic challenges are both daunting and growing.
Transforming Ownership of our Economy
Consider a third scenario for 2030, one where Maine is well on its way toward a more diversified economy, with many more sustainable and growing businesses across many sectors.
The linchpins of this emerging economy are cooperatively-owned businesses: businesses owned by consumers, workers, or groups of producers and independent businesses. Traditional investor-owned firms and sole proprietorships still outnumber these firms in 2030, but the cooperative firms build a foundation for widely shared prosperity in Maine.
The creation of consumer cooperatives provide needed services and jobs in small towns and help retain and attract residents. The opportunity to be a worker-owner of a small business helps retain and attract more qualified, self-directed workers who are more socially embedded in their communities. Small-scale producers such as farmers and artists form producer cooperatives and networks, creating much-needed economies of scale while maintaining their individual operations, decisions, and unique character, and at the same time increasing accessibility of their products to larger markets in Maine and beyond.
Independent businesses join together to share the expense of professional back-office operations as well as the costs of joint marketing and supply agreements. More young people, low-income people, women, Native Americans and New Americans see opportunities to start new cooperatives or convert existing businesses into employee-ownership. These consumer-, worker-, and producer-owned businesses are more deeply rooted in their communities and are better able to dodge competition from overseas, implementing technological improvements in ways that balance employment and profitability.
In this scenario, we transform ownership so more Mainers can participate in more businesses that generate more wealth and security, and we strengthen our communities and economy in ways that are sustainable, equitable and doable.
Is this scenario possible? In short, yes. Read on to see how.