Population data hints at economy of future

Contributing writerApril 29, 2012 

Park yourself at the plaza just inside the entrance gate at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium on a sunny Sunday afternoon and within an hour you may count more baby strollers than the number of cars the automakers build in a year.

Or so it seems. And even more are on the way – kids and strollers – to judge from the number of moms pushing strollers occupied by kids while also carrying a baby bump.

For Tacoma and every other city, county, state and nation, demography is destiny (hmm, wonder if there’s a municipal motto there), especially when it comes to business and economics.

The demographic trend that has most vividly demonstrated this is the baby boomer cohort, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, the classic “pig in the python” that has shaped and disrupted just about every feature of American life it has encountered.

How many houses do we need to build to accommodate those new and growing families? How many elementary schools? How about college dorms and classrooms? Where are the jobs coming from to employ the graduates? How many cars, electronic gadgets and couches can we sell as they set up households of their own? Who’s going to buy their big houses now that the kids are grown? Who’s going to pay their medical bills as the boomers try to delay, avoid or deny the ravages of time?

The baby boomers had kids who are now having kids, so the demographic trend lines are marked by waves. But the height of succeeding waves and the age profile of the American population are also influenced by the number of kids Americans are having and lengthening life expectancy.

Birthrates are falling. Meanwhile, a Congressional Research Service report said last year, “The inexorable demographic momentum will produce an increasingly older population in the United States.” The share of the U.S. population 65 and older in 1950: 8.1 percent. In the 2010 census: 13 percent.

In other words, we’re having fewer kids and living longer.

That matters a lot. So does the distribution within our borders of those young, middle-aged and senior citizens, which is where the anecdotal evidence of the hordes of young’uns on an outing at the zoo (an environment that admittedly skews toward that demographic) coupled with some 2010 census data provides some perspective.

The state of Washington’s age profile matches national averages closely: for both the state and the nation, the under-5 population is 6.5 percent of the total. Under 18, it’s 23.5 percent vs. 24 percent, barely a rounding difference. For 65 and older, the state is at 12.3 percent.

But since people live their daily lives in towns and regions, consider some county numbers. Pierce County scores higher than the state and U.S. for the under-5 set, at 7 percent, and slightly lower for 65 and older, at 11 percent. King County scores lower than both on all three broad brackets, suggesting there’s a huge cohort in the middle.

Where are the old people? Sequim, for one place, with 40.4 percent at 65 and older. States in the rust and snow belts worry about their aging populations; Pennsylvania, for example, has 15.4 percent of its population in the 65-plus category. That East Coast retirement favorite Florida is at 17.3 percent.

What all this means is challenge and opportunity. The type, number and size of facilities government entities will be called upon to build will be influenced by our demographic profile. So will be the kinds of businesses and their growth rates.

You would not, for example, expect a giant used-stroller sales lot in Sequim to generate a lot of demand. Put that same business in Pierce County, however, and you might just have something.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com

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