Aging Colorado losing demographic “dividend”

Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner says the state is losing its “demographic dividend,” a large share of workers in the 35- to 65-year-old age bracket. Colorado ranked 47th among the 50 states in the percentage of seniors in the 2000 census report, but could make the top six by 2030. (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

When it comes to creating a strong business climate and increasing the output of goods and services, communities envy the 35- to 65-year-old age group.

Colorado has an advantage over many states in that it’s attracted young people in the 20- to 40-year-old range over the past few decades, feeding into the group that generally produces more and earns more as its members age. About one in three Coloradans was born outside the state and demographers expect in-migration will continue to account for population shifts that aren’t produced simply by births and deaths.

“Colorado’s migration is business-driven,” said Elizabeth Garner, Colorado state demographer. Garner presented demographic information from the 2010 U.S. Census during a Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce membership breakfast at Banana’s Fun Park.

Most of the young adults have moved to the state to pursue jobs and other business opportunities, just as young adults left the state in the 1980s during an economy that was shedding jobs in Western Colorado.

The attraction of those under-41 adults is what Garner calls the state’s demographic dividend. But she sees the advantage waning in coming decades. “We’re going to lose our demographic dividend.”

By 2030, all members of the baby boomer generation will be 65 or older. The massive graduation into that age group will have a big effect on Western Colorado in general and Mesa County in particular, Garner said.

“Colorado has never had many older people,” Garner said, but added that’s about to change in raw numbers and as a percentage of the population. In the 2000 census, the percentage of Colorado’s population 65 years or older ranked 47th among the 50 states. But Colorado was sixth in the percentage of the population falling within the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964. So it’s plausible Colorado could feature a higher than average percentage of seniors in 2030.

The increase in median age has been more pronounced in Mesa County than in many parts of the state. The median age was 37 years and climbing as of census estimates in 2008.

“You have a large concentration of people between 45 and 65,” Garner said. “Mesa County has a high concentration and tends to attract retirees.”

Mesa County has experienced an increase in the number of people over 65, while most counties have seen no growth in this sector.

On the other hand, 25 percent of the Mesa County population was under 20 in 2010.

The under-18 age group grew significantly in some Western Colorado counties. In Eagle County, that demographic group increased 30 percent between 2000 and 2010. The group grew 28 percent in Garfield County and 24 percent in San Miguel County.

If the trend plays out as Garner forecasts, the number of housing units for seniors will be roughly equal to housing for young families or middle-aged adults in 2030. Demands on health care will be greater, as will potential jobs in that field. Use of public transportation is likely to increase, adding to demand for jobs in that field.

Even if the baby boomers work later in life than their parents, they will eventually leave their jobs, creating openings for their children and grandchildren. Boomers account for 42 percent of the labor force in Colorado, and about 1 million of them will retire by 2030. That represents more than a third of all jobs in the state.

From a broader perspective, the overall population in Colorado continues to grow at a faster rate than the United States. The state population grew 17 percent from 2000 to 2010 to about 5 million people. The U.S. population grew

9 percent during that 10-year period, reaching 308 million.

Mesa County grew 26 percent to approximately 147,000. The fastest growing municipality in the county was Fruita, which grew by 95 percent in a decade. Grand Junction grew 39 percent and Palisade 4 percent.

The Hispanic population is a growing force in Colorado, with potential social and political implications. The segment grew 41 percent over the 10-year period ending in 2010, and now constitutes 20 percent of the state population. The Asian population grew 45 percent and now accounts for 3 percent of the state’s total.

Demographic information is used to help schools, government, companies, job seekers and retirees all prepare for future trends and demands, and a major issue in long-range forecasting is the balance between economic prosperity and the protection of wild lands and animals. The two can go hand in hand in a state heavily reliant on tourist dollars.

“Can we still balance everything so Colorado is still a place where people want to live and work and play?” Garner asked. “We still have that advantage. We need to be careful to protect it.”