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The graying of Michigan

Apr 13, 2015

Remember when people used to make fun of Florida as “God’s waiting room” because of all the elderly who went there to live out the last years of their lives?

Well, here’s something startling: Michigan is rapidly becoming an old people’s state. Instead of arguing about whether maize and blue or green and white should be our state’s official colors, we might be more honest if we made them gray and white.

I learned some new sobering facts about the aging of the automobile state from an article by Kurt Metzger in the current issue of the online Bridge Magazine.

Metzger, who I like to call the "Great Demographer," had a long career with the U.S. Census Bureau and Wayne State University before founding Data Driven Detroit. Today, he serves as the mayor of his little Oakland County city of Pleasant Ridge, but still keeps his eye on population trends.

Nobody knows the numbers better than Kurt, and in this case, they illustrate very starkly what happens when a state stops providing good jobs for young people.

In more than a dozen Michigan counties, the median age is now over 50. Statewide, as of two years ago, almost half the population was over 40 – the oldest ever recorded.

That was less than two years younger than Florida’s median age. We are almost certainly older now.  Michigan’s population is now older than that of all but eight other states.

That’s a dramatic change from even 15 years ago, when we were still younger than more than half the country.

What’s happening here?

Well, Metzger’s data makes it clear enough. In two-thirds of all Michigan counties, more people are dying than are being born.

While some migrants are coming in, roughly speaking, the northern two-thirds of the state has been losing population; so have the counties along the shoreline of Lake Huron. Wayne County, which includes Detroit, is losing the most of all.

Overall, Michigan is estimated to have slightly more people than it did five years ago. But this is based almost entirely on population increases in Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties in the southeast part of the state and in Kent and Ottawa Counties, home to Grand Rapids and Holland.

Elsewhere, the situation is bleak. In the Upper Peninsula, Marquette and the tiny Keewenaw Peninsula are the only areas to show gains.

And even this growth may be temporary.

Metzger notes,

As the population continues to age, the number of deaths will continue to increase while births continue to decrease. Since migration will never make up the difference, the forecast is one of continuing population loss for most of the region.

Metzger doesn’t sugarcoat it.

While I love Baby Boomers as much as the next guy, we are really only serving as the "new face" of retirement and health care. Michigan must start appealing to youth at rates far higher than what downtown Detroit and Grand Rapids can handle ... We know what we need to do to attract the young. The question is, do we have the political will to make it happen?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.