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Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

Utah is young but still needs to get ready for a population that’s growing older

Rakel Davis

Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually.

People aged 65 and older are projected to make up nearly a quarter of the Utah population by 2060 — double the share they did in 2020. By then, there will be more Utahns over age 65 than Utahns under 18.

Research from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah predicts that Utah’s youngest-in-the-nation median age — currently around 31 years old — will jump above 42 by 2060. That means there will be a lot more Utahns in their 50s, 70s and 90s than there are today.

Why is this happening?

It may sound obvious, but the median age tends to keep going up everywhere because everyone who’s already been born is getting older every day. In order to bring down the median age, there have to be a lot of new babies, and Utahns are having fewer children today than they have in past decades.

As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, that’s a big chunk of the population driving this move toward the older end of the spectrum.

The Gardner Policy Institute's director of demographic research, Mallory Bateman, said this generational shift is something demographers have seen coming for decades. So it’s not a surprise, and it’s not unique to Utah.

“You've got the two things kind of working together,” Bateman said. “You've got this big group aging up and then you have people having fewer kids.”

Utahns who belong to the next biggest generation besides Boomers, Millennials, are starting to reach middle age now and many will be seniors themselves by 2060. If all the people in their 30s moving to Utah now stay here for the next few decades, they will eventually hit retirement age and push this aging shift even further.

On top of that, Americans are living longer today than they did in previous generations. Life expectancy is about five years longer now than it was in 1970 and is expected to rise above 85 by 2060.

“If science continues to improve, health and medicine continue to improve,” Bateman said, “you have this group that might have gotten smaller quicker lasting a little bit longer into the future.”

This graph shows how Utah’s population of older residents could drastically increase by 2060.
courtesy Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute
This graph shows how Utah’s population of older residents could drastically increase by 2060.

One way to visualize this is called a population pyramid. That’s a vertical graph where residents are arranged by age with youngest at the bottom and oldest at the top.

Right now, Utah’s graph looks pretty much like a Christmas tree. It’s widest at the base, with school-age kids making up the biggest group, and gradually coming to a pointy top as age groups get smaller and smaller.

But by 2060, Utah’s graph is expected to look a lot different, Bateman said — more like an urn with curves bending out wide for large populations of middle-aged and older Utahns.

Even though the West Coast-to-Utah pipeline gets plenty of hype, migration wasn’t the biggest factor in Utah’s population growth from 2010-2020. People moving from other states accounted for roughly one-third of the state’s growth, Bateman said, with natural growth — more people being born than dying — driving the other two-thirds.

But her projections expect the number of people moving into Utah to keep growing. By the 2040s, she said, in-migration will overtake natural growth to become the biggest growth factor.

What could this mean for different parts of the state?

The shift toward an older Utah will likely be the most visible in the few counties where the median age is expected to rise above 50.

Kane County near Lake Powell is projected to go from a median age of 42.9 in 2022 to 51 in 2060. Summit County could go from 41.5 to 51.5. And Washington County, home to St. George, is expected to have the biggest jump, from 39.2 to 51.9.

In St. George, one challenge is to have enough younger workers to meet the growing needs of the older, retired part of the population. While hourly wages have gone up as employers compete for workers, the cost of living in St. George makes it tough for many people who could fill those jobs to live there.

The median list price for homes in Washington County is around $684,000, up from $339,000 in 2016. From 2020 to 2021, the number of available units in the price range for residents making the median income — $70,000 for a family of four — dropped from 662 to 94.

“In places where maybe it's not affordable for people in a service industry to be living in the community … it's hard to find people to fill the jobs,” Bateman said. “I think that is something that has been pretty intensely felt in the past two or three years.”

But Washington, Kane and Summit counties are also expected to significantly grow their total populations in the next few decades, so they’ll theoretically have bigger tax bases to help them develop the housing, health care and transit infrastructure they’ll need to serve those older populations.

Rural counties with smaller populations and less growth might not have that advantage. Many rural county populations already skew older, and younger residents born there often move away for job opportunities in bigger cities.

So some of the least populated, most remote communities in Utah could end up facing the toughest obstacles as residents age.

“If the EMTs are all volunteers and everyone in your community is over 60, that can be a challenge,” Bateman said. “In some of these communities that are a little bit farther out from the Wasatch Front, where you do have a lot of resources kind of readily available, those challenges might be a little bit more intense.”

How can Utah get ready for this future?

As a community ages, its needs change. Different housing options. More access to health care clinics and nurses. More transit for folks who may not be driving anymore.

State planning coordinator Laura Hanson works on the state’s Guiding Our Growth survey, which asks for Utahns’ input on what the state needs as its population continues to swell. About 16,000 people have filled out at least part of the survey so far, she said. When the state releases results later this year, it aims to inform local leaders about what steps they can take to get their communities ready.

One thing she’s been hearing from respondents is that Utahns tend to like the idea of focusing more development into “centers” — places that have higher density housing built around other spots people need to go every day, such as grocery stores, doctor’s offices, shops and transit.

Focusing on that type of development, she said, could also help older people feel less socially isolated, which is another factor that can impact health.

“We really ought to be thinking about, ‘How can we build this into the way that we're designing our communities?’” Hanson said. “To foster these social interactions and make sure that we all stay healthy and have that network and that community to help us out as we go through different phases in our lives.”

For rural areas that might not have a bunch of new development going in, she said, revitalizing a Main Street downtown area could accomplish some of those same goals.

The good news, Hanson said, is that Utah is so young today that it has a bit more runway to prepare for this future and plenty of chances to see what has worked or not worked in states that have already faced this type of transition.

“We are not the first people, the first community to go through a shift like this,” Hanson said. “There are opportunities for us to look to different places in the United States and maybe even beyond for good examples of how we can design our communities to best meet the needs of an older population.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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