Where the Working-Age Population Is Declining and Why It Matters

Some counties are losing people in their prime working years, creating potential challenges for local governments.
by | July 6, 2016

Losing a sizable number of residents in their prime working ages carries numerous implications. The smaller talent pool puts a strain on the workforce. Greater demand for some public services is likely where numbers of older residents are climbing. And, depending on tax structures, state and local revenues could further take a hit.

Some U.S. counties in recent years have experienced notable declines in the prime working-age population, considered those 25 to 54 years old. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released updated local population estimates for different demographic groups, which Governing used to compile data showing changes in the working-age population for each county since 2010.

In all, 98 larger counties -- those that have more than 100,000 residents -- lost at least 5 percent of prime working-age adults over the short five-year period. Nationally, about 128 million Americans fall into this age bracket, which is up 0.6 percent from 2010.

Factors behind the declines vary.

In some economically struggling counties, people are moving elsewhere to find jobs. But that doesn't necessarily mean those counties are losing population across the board. In fact, most of the counties that saw the largest percentage drops in working-age adults are seeing other segments of the population grow or remain steady. Sussex County, N.J., for instance, has lost nearly 12 percent of its prime working-age adults since 2010, but totals for the rest of the population grew slightly.

In many places, the shrinking of the prime working-age population is more a consequence of baby boomers aging and fewer younger adults to take their place.

In a few counties, the circumstances driving the declines are unique. In Cochise County, Ariz., for instance, which has experienced one of the largest declines, the loss of military jobs is to blame. According to Robert Carreira, chief economist at the Center for Economic Research at Cochise College, a large U.S. Army installation there has downsized in recent years and has been accompanied by the elimination of local defense contracting jobs.

The following larger counties have experienced the largest percentage declines in the prime working age population since 2010:

County 2010-2015 Change 2010 Prime Working Age Population 2015 Prime Working Age Population
Cambria County, Pennsylvania -12.2% 54,011 47,431
Hunterdon County, New Jersey -12.1% 53,511 47,048
San Juan County, New Mexico -12.1% 51,283 45,094
Sussex County, New Jersey -11.6% 63,083 55,772
Litchfield County, Connecticut -11.3% 77,209 68,462
Tolland County, Connecticut -11.2% 59,934 53,225
Broome County, New York -10.8% 75,528 67,372
Barnstable County, Massachusetts -10.4% 74,757 66,983
Washington County, Rhode Island -10.2% 46,994 42,221
Cochise County, Arizona -9.5% 48,885 44,218
Data shown for counties with populations exceeding 100,000.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of July 2010-2015 Census estimates

Another way to consider these demographic shifts is to compare the change in prime working-age adults with that of the remainder of the population. Some counties with the largest differences aren’t necessarily losing middle-aged adults, it’s just that they're adding many more younger or older residents. Sumter County, Fla., which has the highest median age of any county, has seen its working-age population remain steady in recent years, but an influx of retirees caused the rest of the population to jump an estimated 34 percent since 2010.

Some counties where gaps in growth are largest tend to be recreation destinations or home to more retirees. Others, like Hunterdon County, N.J., and Tolland County, Conn., lost more than 10 percent of the prime working age residents while gaining population in other age groups.

The following counties (of those with 100,000 or more residents) recorded the largest percentage-point differences between changes in the prime working-age population and other age groups since 2010:

County Percentage-Point Difference 2015-2010 Prime Working-Age Change 2015-2010 Non-Prime Working-Age Change
Sumter County, Florida 32 1.70% 33.7%
Brunswick County, North Carolina 18.6 1.50% 20.1%
Hunterdon County, New Jersey 18.3 -12.10% 6.2%
Fayette County, Georgia 16.7 -6.60% 10.1%
Tolland County, Connecticut 16.5 -11.20% 5.3%
Douglas County, Colorado 16.5 3.40% 19.9%
Williamson County, Tennessee 16.1 5.80% 21.9%
Washington County, Rhode Island 15.5 -10.20% 5.3%
Barnstable County, Massachusetts 14.8 -10.40% 4.4%
El Dorado County, California 14.8 -7.10% 7.7%
SOURCE: Governing calculations of July 2010-2015 Census estimates

A prolonged decline among residents in their prime working ages could lead to a litany of different challenges for an area.

Whatever advantages a county may enjoy in attracting employers are negated if they lack an adequate workforce. Without many employers, younger workers in rural and smaller counties often leave to pursue more opportunities in larger metro areas.

A loss of working-age adults could also lead to revenue declines for states and localities, depending on how their tax systems are structured. While most local jurisdictions don't impose an income tax, those that do could certainly expect losses. Local sales tax revenues could also potentially take a hit in the 29 states permitting counties to collect the taxes.

Emilia Istrate, research director for the National Association of Counties, said difficulties could play out in jurisdictions with a large share of property owners on fixed incomes. Such residents might struggle to pay rising property tax bills, the top revenue source for counties.

"It can definitely present a challenge in areas where property assessments are growing rapidly," Istrate said. “Counties are the primary social safety net on the ground.”

Although the age 25-to-54 group has historically been viewed as the range for prime working ages, it’s worth noting that more Americans are opting to retire later. A recent Gallup poll found that, on average, U.S. workers expect to retire at age 66 -- up from age 60 in 1995. The most recent actual retirement age for those surveyed averaged 61 years.

NOTE: This story has been updated -- some statistics reported in a prior version of this story were incorrect.