One way to understand Adirondack population trends is to look at the major changes in the experiences of different age groups. In this article we look at the experiences of the Late Baby Boomers, those born between 1956-1965, and the Generation Xers, those born 1966-1975.
Across Rural America these age groups saw major population losses by 2010, even as the U.S. population grew due to immigration from abroad.
In the new report The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010 we aggregated the data of the 61 Adirondack Park Towns that are 100% within the Blue Line in order to compare Adirondack communities with other areas in the U.S. The purpose was to see if Adirondack communities stood out in any way from other places by studying trends of leading economic and population indicators from 1970 to 2010. In 2010, the 61 Park Towns had just over 100,000 residents, 77.4% of the Park’s estimated population of 130,000.
In the debate over the future of the Adirondack Park, there is nothing more controversial than the discussion of population trends. Often, data from Adirondack counties are cited as being unique to the Adirondack Park. It’s important to understand that population trends in Adirondack communities mirror those of Rural America. And there is no better illustration of this reality than by looking at the experiences of young people coming of age in Rural America in the 1980s and 1990s. Earlier articles in this series focused on long-term population growth, short-term population loss, and the experiences of the age groups born between 1936-1955.
Let’s start with the Late Baby Boomers. These people were born between 1956-65, who were 5-14 years old in 1970 and 15-24 years old in 1980. This age group was part of the biggest population expansion in American history. By 1970, this age group was between 5 and 14 years old and there were just over 19,000 of them living in the 61 Adirondack Park Towns. The Late Baby Boomers were the first age group to fully experience the major loss of college age young people, which has become a dominant trend in the Adirondacks and Rural America for all subsequent age groups.
The biggest shift for the 19,000 Late Baby Boomers in Adirondack communities was in 1990 when they were 25-34 years old, a point when this age group had dropped to 15,000, largely due to the loss of 4,000 college age young people. This drop was similar to losses in Rural America where the Late Baby Boomers’ age group population dropped from 7.25 million to 6.07 million in these years, driven by the exodus of young people primarily for college or the military. (See Table 22 below.)
The Late Baby Boomers in the Adirondacks recruited over 1,300 people at age 35 and another 750 or so at age 45. From 1970 to 2010 the Late Baby Boomers saw a net drop of -10.3%, roughly 2,000 people. It will be interesting to see if in 2020, at age 55, how many early retirees this age group picks up. It’s likely to pick up some, but probably not enough to make up for the loss of college age young people.
It’s important to note that the Late Baby Boomers -10.3% population loss in Adirondack communities was similar to other rural areas in New York that posted -10.4% losses and in Rural America where losses ranged from -4.5% to -12.6%. New York State lost over 500,000 people across the state in this age group, a -15.7% drop, a loss of over 500,000 people.
Across the U.S. the Late Baby Boomers saw their age group expand by over 4 million people due to immigration from abroad, yet Rural America saw a net loss of over 500,000 people during these same years. All of the major growth was largely concentrated in metropolitan areas of the U.S. In 2010, just 13% of Late Baby Boomers at ages 45-54 years old chose to make their lives in Rural America, while 87% chose to live in Metro America.
The experience of the Generation Xers was even more dramatic, though the data we have is limited. When we meet them in 1980 they are 5-14 years old and reached 35-44 years old by 2010. The 61 Adirondack Park Towns had 15,321 Generation Xers in 1980 and 11,879 in 2010, a -22.5% drop. Across Rural America the Generation Xers saw widespread population losses, ranging from a low of -14.6% to a high of -23.7%. Rural New York towns dropped by -23.2% and the most thinly populated counties in the Northeast U.S. dropped by -23.7%. (See Table 23 below.)
While the Gen Xers in the 61 Park Towns experienced a loss of over 4,200 college age young people, they saw recruitment of over 800 people at age 35. The Park Towns’ recruitment levels were consistent with recruitment levels across Rural America. It will be interesting to see if recruitment continues for the Generation Xers at age 45 in 2020 and among early retirees at age 55 in 2030.
It’s important to note that the U.S. as a whole gained over 6 million new residents among the Generation X age group due to immigration from abroad, but the Gen X age group in Rural America lost almost 1 million people at the same time. In 2010, by ages 35-44 years old, and in the peaks of their working careers, just 5.4 million Gen Xers chose to live in Rural America, an area that covered 68% of the lower 48 U.S. states. In 2010, just 11.8% of Generation Xers at ages 35-44 years old chose to make their lives in Rural America, while 88.2% chose to live in Metro America.
The debate over the future of the Adirondack Park is often driven by anecdote and conventional wisdom rather that data. In the Adirondacks, we need to reframe the public discussion so that it is based on solid data. Good data should drive public policy decisions and help Adirondack leaders to forge new strategies, programs and investments that target recruitment of people at different ages or adjust to the realities of gradual shrinking populations in many communities.