Who first declared that “demography is destiny” is uncertain, but that doesn’t detract from the aphorism’s validity—and what’s happening in California right now proves it.
The state Department of Finance released one of its periodic reports on California population trends this month, revealing that while we’re very close to 40 million residents, growth has slowed to a snail’s pace.
California added just 186,807 souls in 2018, the department’s demographers calculated, just a .47 % gain, the slowest in recorded history and only a quarter of the state’s growth rate during the 1980s, which was its last great population boom period before a long-term slide began.
During the 1980s, California was experiencing a strong inflow of people from other states, even stronger immigration from other countries, legal and otherwise, and an explosion of births, more than 600,000 babies a year.
All of those trends have now reversed. We lose more people to other states than we gain (Texas is the No. 1 destination for our expats); foreign immigration is close to nil; births have dropped to well under 500,000 a year; and deaths are increasing as members of the post-World War II baby boom generation become elderly.
The decline in births and immigration and the aging of the baby boomers mean California, which has traditionally had a relatively young and vibrant population, is rapidly graying. We are becoming more like states in the East and the upper Midwest, while our neighboring states are more like California used to be.
The population boom of the 1980s pushed California from 24 million residents to 30 million, and after the 1990 census it was awarded seven additional congressional seats. Growth slowed in the 1990s, so we got just one new seat after the 2000 census, and none after the 2010 census.
Demographers say California will be lucky to break even in congressional seats after the 2020 census and could lose one seat—even if the count is not depressed by a very controversial citizenship question, as state officials fear.
Thus, one consequence of much slower population growth is relatively declining political influence, not only in congressional seats but in presidential electoral votes based on those seats.
The biggest impacts, however, will be felt in the socioeconomic realm. A stagnant, aging population will generate fewer workers for the state’s economy, exacerbated by low academic gains in the state’s school system and high housing costs that discourage migration to California and push educated Californians to other states.
Eventually, a chronic lack of trained and trainable workers will translate into less economic investment. It also will make providing services to the fast-growing numbers of elderly Californians more difficult, as a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California underscores.
The state will need to fill more than 107,000 new health care jobs each year between 2016 and 2026, PPIC points out, and will likely be unable to fill them without a strong inflow of foreign-born workers.
Nearly a third of California’s current health care workforce is foreign-born—twice the level of the nation as a whole—and that includes 36% of physicians, 35% of registered nurses and 42% of health aides.
Attracting and training more immigrants will be vital to the viability of California’s health care system, which is also the state’s largest single economic activity, at some $400 billion a year. And what’s true about health care is also true about the state’s other major industries, including high technology.
Demography is, indeed, our destiny. We ignore it at our peril.
CALmatters is a public-interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more commentary by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.