Opinion | Bruce Butler: What does the future look like?
Looking at all the new construction and traffic in Summit County, it would be easy to assume the county’s population is growing exponentially. It is not. In fact, Summit County’s permanent population changed very little between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. censuses. Summit County has roughly 31,000 permanent residents.
Minimal permanent population growth despite substantial residential construction may be fodder for the ongoing short-term rental and second home ownership debates, but there is more going on underneath Summit County’s and Colorado’s population numbers. Certainly, the high cost of housing, the high cost of living, and the abundance of lower-paying jobs and shortage of higher salary jobs make it difficult for many to put down roots and raise families in Summit County. However, the same could be said for many Colorado counties, so Summit County is representative of broader Colorado trends, rather than a unique case.
In December, I attended the 2023 Colorado Business Economic Outlook presented by the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business. The annual Business Outlook is available online, and it is packed full of data that is impossible to fully digest in this column. With that caveat, there were several takeaways regarding Colorado’s population demographics. Most notably, Colorado’s youth population is declining, the state’s 65+ population is increasing, and 95% of the population growth in the past decade was along the Front Range. While overall Front Range population growth did slow down from 2020 to 2021, and appears to be leveling off, Douglas, Weld, El Paso, Larimer, and Adams counties saw population increases, while Denver, Jefferson, and Boulder counties experienced declines.
According to the Business Outlook and a recent Wall Street Journal report, Colorado’s population growth has been 0.5% in 2021 and 2022, which equates to approximately 30,500 people each year. In Colorado, 59% of the counties, which is 38 of 64 counties, experienced natural decrease in population, which is more deaths than births in 2020. Clearly, COVID-19 played a role in these numbers, but the 0-17 age population decreased by 11,560 from 2020 to 2021, the 18-24 population increased by 2,951, and the 25-44 population increased by 10,871. Meanwhile, the 45-64 population decreased by 2,446, while the 65+ population increased by 30,716.
To put these numbers into broader context, overall birthrates have been declining in the United States and in Colorado since 2007. An estimated 66,000 Coloradans turned 65 in 2021 and 67,000 turned 65 in 2022. So, births are not keeping pace with our aging population. Weld County was the only Front Range County that saw increased births.
This imbalanced trend has ramifications from workforce labor to public pensions to Social Security and Medicare. Remember, the U.S. Treasury has been collecting Social Security taxes from working Americans, paying eligible recipients, placing IOUs into the Treasury, and spending the surplus. There is no savings account! If there are not more workers than recipients, the only other option is to borrow more to cover the shortfall. With a $32 trillion national debt, this is not an economically sustainable model. Odds are that our policymakers will continue to spend recklessly and live in denial for as long as possible. The same policymakers have also encouraged lower population growth, undermined the nuclear family, discouraged savings and penalized inheritance.
In what other ways might these demographic trends impact the future? Academic declines due to lost school time and remote learning may be more consequential to our nation and workforce than most realize. With fewer workers entering the workforce, upward salary pressure is likely to continue. As a country and in Summit County, we must improve public education. Our primary and secondary schools need to refocus on essential academics like reading, writing, and mathematics and critical skilled trades vocational training if the U.S. is going to retain its manufacturing base and be internationally competitive in the future. Higher education will continue to see declining enrollment, which should be an incentive to eliminate bloated bureaucracy, cut tuition costs, and make a stronger case for the professional monetary value of higher education.
Public policy must incentivize entrepreneurship, skilled trades vocational education, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, and keep the cost of living and raising families affordable through practical energy policy, lower taxes, and rewarding employment.
Bruce Butler's column "Common Sense Conversations" publishes biweekly on Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Butler is a former mayor and council member in Silverthorne, where he has lived for 20 years. Contact him at email@example.com.
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