Commentary

Rick Haglund: Census shows Michigan is still losing the race to attract young talent

August 30, 2021 3:24 am

Ann Arbor is one of the few Michigan cities attracting young talent | Susan J. Demas

Alarm bells should be ringing in the heads of state policymakers over Michigan’s latest census figures.

Why, you ask? At first glance, the numbers look pretty good. The 2020 census, released earlier this month, shows Michigan has 10,077,331 residents. That’s the first time the state has cracked the 10 million mark since 2008.

Many of the state’s inner-ring suburbs and large counties gained population, indicating that they’re attracting young families, among others, veteran independent demographer Kurt Metzger told me.

But a deeper dive reveals that Michigan is one of the slowest-growing states in the nation. Its population is rapidly aging and the state is failing to produce a large enough working-age population to fuel an economy that was once the envy of the nation.

And much of the state’s suburb growth likely came from state residents leaving core cities and rural counties.

Of the 47 states that saw their populations grow over the past decade, Michigan had the second-lowest growth rate, ahead of Connecticut. (Illinois, Mississippi and West Virginia lost population.) Fifty of Michigan’s 83 counties have shed residents since 2010.

Boosting its working-age population is Michigan’s biggest economic challenge, one that policymakers are largely ignoring.

“We’ve talked about this forever, but the problem hasn’t improved much,” Metzger told me.

Michigan doesn’t even have a state demographer to advise the governor and lawmakers on population trends in a year when the federal government is releasing voluminous amounts of 2020 census data. State demographer Eric Guthrie left in May for a similar post in Minnesota and hasn’t been replaced.

Dire workforce population predictions also demand the state shift its economic development from attracting businesses to attracting talent. Without a larger pool of workers, new businesses locating here will essentially just be stealing workers from existing employers.

– Rick Haglund

While the state’s population grew overall, most of its larger cities shrank. Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Saginaw all lost residents over the past decade. Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, once the cradle of U.S. manufacturing might, all posted double-digit population losses.

That’s bad news because young talent is locating largely in metro areas with vibrant central cities. Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and downtown Detroit are about the only places in Michigan with the ability to attract and retain significant numbers of young college graduates.

There were widespread predictions that the COVID pandemic would kill large cities as residents fled to safer rural areas where they could work remotely. 

Those forecasts were wildly off the mark. Michigan, like many other states, saw its rural population decline over the past decade.

The latest census shows New York City gained 629,000 residents since 2010, nearly as many people as the entire population of Detroit. 

Tech workers who fled San Francisco and neighboring Silicon Valley during the pandemic are returning, with many saying they missed the region’s vibrancy.

And Chicago, which snags a lot of Michigan’s new college graduates, grew by 2% since 2010 after decades of population decline.

We need to keep more of those graduates at home and attract new ones to ensure a strong economy. But population and labor force projections are not encouraging.

State labor market officials predict little growth in both employment and the size of Michigan’s working-age population over the decade, projections Metzger called “depressing.”

Virtually all of Michigan’s recent and projected population growth is among those of retirement age and older.

Census 2020 data for Michigan population density | U.S. Census Bureau

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services statistics show the percentage of the state’s population age 65 and older grew from 12.3% in 2000 to 17.7% in 2019. Meanwhile, Michigan’s working-age population fell from 66% of the state’s total population to 64.7% in the same period.

Many experts believe the best shot Michigan has in growing its work force is to attract more international immigrants, an idea that’s been politically unpopular in the state.

But that could change, a result of growing humanitarian crises around the world and the defeat of former President Donald Trump, who regularly spewed ugly, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Earlier this week, a coalition of local chambers of commerce applauded Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s offer to resettle Afghan refugees fleeing the war-torn country in Michigan. 

“Doing so is not only a moral obligation, but a much-needed step toward solving our state’s declining population crisis,” chamber leaders from Bay City, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Saginaw and Traverse City said in a letter to Whitmer.

Dire workforce population predictions also demand the state shift its economic development from attracting businesses to attracting talent. Without a larger pool of workers, new businesses locating here will essentially just be stealing workers from existing employers.

State economic development efforts also must focus more sharply on placemaking, helping local communities create attractive cultural and recreational amenities to attract new residents and workers.

Most of all, Metzger said Michigan needs a sweeping strategic plan to address how it can grow its stagnant working-age population. Otherwise, the state faces long-term economic mediocrity, at best.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund is a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.

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