May 25, 2021 by Gwen Burrow
If the US plans to brace for the coming sansdemic, better brace now. Last year, deaths exceeded births in fully half of the US states. Deaths outnumbered births in just five states in 2019, but that number rose to a concerning 25 states in 2020 as COVID accelerated the ongoing trend of the decline of young people. Baby boomers are dying off faster than they are replaced.
Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, calculated that a record 3.4 million people died in 2020, up 18% from 2019, while births were down 4% to just 3.6 million. Year-over-year population growth slowed a massive 74% from 2019 and created the smallest annual percentage population gain in at least a century.
Even worse? Early trends threaten a similar story for 2021.
If the alarm bells are ringing, just know that this is nothing new. America’s population growth has been decelerating for several decades. In this article, we consider particular states and counties where the decline of young people is particularly acute. For at least the past 20 years, young people under prime working age (ages 0-24) have comprised an ever dwindling piece of the pie, while ranks of seniors (ages 65+) have only swelled.
America’s people shortage has gotten worse by the decade. From 2001 to 2011, the local population under age 25 shrank in some 61% of all US counties. But from 2011 to 2021, it shrank in a full 70% of US counties.
Nearly two-thirds of all US counties aren’t just losing the happy sounds of children’s shouts in their neighborhoods, they’re losing their future prime-age workforce.
An alarming 66% of US counties are getting squeezed on both ends: gaining old and losing young simultaneously. From 2001 to 2021, a full 2,000 out of a total of 3,000 counties saw their population ages 65+ expand while their population under age 25 shrank.
The older demographic is booming while the younger demographic is bleeding out of three US counties in particular: LA County (CA), Orange County (CA), and Cook County (IL). Notice that two of these counties are in California, where birth rates have plunged over 15% in the past decade. In fact, from 2001 to 2021, California’s population ages 0-24 declined in 61% of its counties.
LA County is losing its future workforce at a shocking rate. From 2001 to 2021, the local population of 65+ grew by over half a million (59%) at the same time that the population under age 25 shrank by nearly three-quarters of a million (-19%). That’s three-quarters of a million people who would have joined the prime-age workforce over the next 25 years.
What’s three-quarters of a million people to LA county? That’s a full 10% of the county’s current total prime-age workforce (people ages 25-54), meaning that in the next 20 years, LA county’s prime-age workforce will be literally decimated.
Neighboring Orange County has a similar story. Its population under 25 shrank by 97,000 (9%) while its 65+ population snowballed by 230,000 (80%).
Cook County, home to Chicago, saw its population ages 65+ increase by 187,000 (30%) while its 0-24 population decreased by an enormous 416,000 (-22%).
The decline of young people is an inconsistent problem. Some states are gaining young people, others are losing. From 2001 to 2021, the population under age 25 actually flourished in key western and southern states while plunging in the northeast and midwest. Compare Nevada with Michigan, Texas with New York, Florida with Louisiana.
Keeping up the birth rate is like striking oil on your land. It’s a producer of wealth. These national trends, if continued, indicate that much of the Pacific Northwest, the southwest, and a few southern states will boast stronger economies over the next 50 years due to the growth in young people. You might call these regions people-positive. States like Nevada, Idaho, Texas, and North Carolina are producing the most valuable commodity for the economy, because economies, as it turns out, are people.
Nevada has seen the largest percentage growth (+34%) in its under-25 population over the past 20 years. Other states with strong young population growth include:
Michigan’s young population has shrunk the most at -14%, followed by Illinois at -13%. A thick cluster of northeastern states are all losing the same demographic:
Young people are also diminishing in a swath of southern states:
Unlike the younger population, which is flourishing in some places and declining in others, the older population is growing in every single state. From 2001 to 2021, people ages 65 and over exploded in:
Naturally, a state’s increase of any demographic, old or young, is affected by migration patterns within the US. Four of the states where older populations increased—e.g., Idaho and Nevada—were among the top population gainers from 2000 to 2020. In other words, a state’s older or younger populations may not be growing due purely to the aging of its current residents or an uptick in births, but also because of the influx of new residents, both old and young.
Similarly, states with vanishing younger populations—e.g., Michigan, Illinois, New York—were among the top population losers from 2000 to 2020 as Americans moved out of state. So a state’s declining population of young folks is influenced by outmigration, not simply by plunging birth rates.
Nevertheless, as we saw with California, outmigration does not alone account for the drastic decline in population ages 0-24 in many US states. For years, state birth rates have been plunging in states that are also losing their young generation. In the chart below, note the correlation between sinking birth rates and shrinking population ages 0-24 from 2005 to 2019. In all states except Louisiana, a drop in birth rate is accompanied by a drop in the young population.
What does the decline of young people mean to US industries? What will happen as millions of teenage and early-20s workers aren’t here to get hired over the next couple decades? We discussed various economic, societal, and lifestyle impacts of the loss of workers in our report on the sansdemic, but here, let’s think about particular industries doomed to suffer.
Hotels, restaurants, theaters, and retail stores are among the industries that will be the hardest hit. A full third (33%) of the Accommodation & Food Services industry is made up of workers ages 14-24. The same age group also makes up a quarter (25%) of employees within Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation, and 22% of Retail Trade.
As their prime demographic grows scarce, businesses in these industries will face cutthroat competition to survive.
“The birthrate is the lowest it’s ever been,” Johnson noted. “At some point the question is going to be: The women who delayed having babies, are they ever going to have them? If they don’t, that’s a permanent notch in the American births structure.”
Employers can’t change the number of children born, but what they can do is read the terrain, fully come to grips with the reality of the competition, and plan accordingly. As Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg points out, businesses can no longer afford to assume an eternal supply of cheap labor. Those days appear to be over.
“Numerous modern business models are predicated on there being a pool of precarious workers with minimal bargaining power,” Weisenthal observes. “We might be getting a glimpse of what an economy looks like where that can’t be taken for granted, and businesses actually have to scramble to find labor, or in some cases maybe it isn’t available at all.”
People have always been valuable, but just like cash and goods, their value, in a very real sense, increases with scarcity. Employers must recognize this increasing value and work hard to do two things: