Those well known demographers at Governing Magazine are likely to ignite another round of hysteria about NH’s aging population with their recent article highlighting increases in the median age of state populations. I do not plan to go “gently into that good night” and for the past decade, as I hurtle toward my dotage, I have “raged against the dying of the light” by highlighting why, at least in NH’s case, demographic trends are far less apocalyptic than popularly portrayed.
I can’t say it enough, I believe that demographics explain two-thirds of everything. Current trends will present the U.S. and NH with many challenges but we will be infinitely better able to confront these challenges with an accurate understanding of the forces that are creating them. Too often demographic data is tortured to yield conclusions in support of some issue or cause rather than analyzed to reveal the real underlying forces affecting the economy and society. If we think the state’s population is aging because of zoning restrictions or because contraceptives are too widely available, or because there aren’t enough skateboard parks or coffee shops then policies designed to manage the changes resulting from demographic forces are going to be profoundly ineffective.
I first made the arguments below about a decade ago and despite the protestations of those who have horror stories to tell and books and documentaries to sell, nobody has shown why they are inaccurate.
Aging is a permanent, irreversible consequence of low average family size and longer life expectancies in developed societies. Because NH has both wealthier and healthier older citizens (on average) than does the US, we expect greater longevity. NH also has among the lowest fertility rates of any state in the nation and this, more than anything, accounts for our increasing median age relative to the US. The chart below shows how much lower and how much faster the fertility rate among women of child bearing years has been declining in NH compared to the U.S. average, along with how much lower NH’s mortality rate is than is the U.S. rate.
Unlike the brother and son of former U.S. presidents I don’t know anything about how fertile women of different races or ethnic origins are but I am probably just as prone to putting my foot in my mouth, so here goes: “Fertility rates,” or the number of births per 1,000 women in child bearing years does vary by the educational attainment, labor force status, and as is evident in the state of Utah, even the religious beliefs of women and their partners. Fertility rates largely account for NH’s rising median age, just as they do for Vermont and Maine. Fertility almost always has a more powerful effect on the age structure of a state’s population than does either migration or mortality because all of the population changes that it generates arise at age zero and work their way through the age structure for 70+ years. The chart below shows how much lower is NH’s fertility rate among women age 15-44 than is the rate in most other states in the nation. The chart also largely explains why Utah has the youngest median age of any state and why NH, VT, ME and other New England states have older median age populations.
Women in NH (as well as in most New England states) have higher educational attainment (on average) and are more likely to be in the labor force than are women overall in the U.S.. Both of these factors are associated with lower birth rates. Much of NH’s increase in college educated workers is the result increases among women and this has produced substantial economic benefits for the state and its residents.
For two decades NH has added large numbers of families with children and lost younger people who attend college or otherwise leave the state in young adulthood. In recent years a weak economy and a housing market that made it difficult to both sell and buy a house has greatly curtailed migration into NH. Mover’s to NH over the past several decades are more likely to be a married couple family age 30-44 with children and likely to both be college educated and working. That demographic doesn’t do a lot to lower the median age of a population but it can help keep the median age stationary in the middle of the age range. However, economic conditions not only have curtailed state-to-state migration, they have also lowered fertility rates, as income and employment trends appear to have given pause to more families considering expansion. Across the nation state-to-state migration has been lower than at any time in a half century and fertility rates started to decline in the U.S. (after rising in a few consecutive years) as the last recession took hold.
The long-term trend in NH is for a gradually increasing median age that should be rising at about the same rate as the much of the U.S.. The state is not even close to the top among state on the percentage of its population age 65 or older and that fact alone should eliminate some of the more simplistic explanations for why NH’s median age has been rising faster than the U.S.. Because of our low fertility and mortality rates, NH is more dependent upon in-migration to offset trends that would produce more rapid increases in median age than seen in much of the country. Over the past several years those migration trends haven’t been favorable. If the economy and housing markets recovery continue and NH focuses on the right policies (hint – zoning regulations aren’t it) this should be a temporary phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to get any older, it just means that we can keep the median age at a more stationary point in the middle of the age distribution. The middle has gotten a pretty bad name in recent years, but demographically at least, its not at all a bad place to be.