States contend with a shrinking workforce; Washington not among them, though job growth concentrates in metro areas.

We recently included a link to intriguing research reported by Stateline in one of our Friday Roundups. The Stateline report said, 

The population of prime working-age adults, ages 25 to 54, will decline in 16 states, most of which are in the Northeast and Midwest, from 2010 to 2040, according to a Stateline analysis of projections released by the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group in the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

Washington is not one of the shrinking 16. But some analysis of the data by Aaron Renn at New Geography suggests a perspective that might be relevant to those concerned about the declining working age populations in rural communities, even those in states that continue to experience overall growth. Renn writes,

Cities and states need to think hard about what this means for them. It seems to me is that one effect will be to fuel intrastate divergence, as success pools into islands in an era of overall shrinkage. You can argue we’re already seeing this.

He writes that in some places, growth won’t return. In these left-behind communities, the future will require a “new psychology.”

More realistically, these places need to focus on healing from or managing their problems (including managing decline in some places like rural communities).  Some areas of focus:

  • Pension and debt issues
  • Environmental remediation
  • Segregation
  • Raising educational attainment (to high school at least), even if that means the people subsequently leave
  • Infrastructure
  • Restructuring core services to be sustainable

Then, he poses a question, unanswered, that acknowledges:

Not easy, and realistically requiring outside financial and technical assistance.

What’s more, this is a to do list, not a psychology of success. How can one begin to articulate a positive, affirmational view of a place’s future that captures some program like this?

Our roadmap for shared prosperity provides a “positive, affirmational view” for economic vitality and expanded opportunity in all parts of the state. We continue to believe that every community in Washington can succeed. Yet, as Renn suggests, the nature of that success will stem from the unique attributes of each of those communities.

In another post, Renn asks another provocative question: What happens when there’s nobody left to move to the city?

There’s a lot of urban triumphalism these days, as cities crow about Millennials wanting to live downtown and such.

But the dirty little secret is that a lot of these places have been growing their youth populations by hoovering up the children of their hinterlands. To the extent that urban population growth is dependent on intrastate migration in these states with declining working age populations, at some point there are just plain going to be a lot fewer youngster to move to the big city. That will start to crimp urban population dynamics.

While the urban migration is a long standing trend, it’s accelerated in a handful of “it” cities, like Seattle. Renn considers Indianapolis, noting that it’s a boomtown in a state experiencing very slow workforce growth. 

At some point, the decline of rural and small manufacturing counties is going to have to show up in the migration numbers to cities like Indy. Other cities that draw primarily from a national base – like Nashville or Dallas – will be less affected. [We’d add Seattle to the list of cities drawing from a national base.]

But cities that are dependent on a regional migration shed need to start doing the math on how the decline of their hinterlands will affect them.

Although these are not problems Washington state or its major metros are currently experiencing, the national realignment Stateline and Renn have identified will have consequences for how Washington grows in the future. And for how that growth is perceived and influenced by public policymakers. It’s a trend worth watching.