On the rise

Report shows future growth in state population

Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Alaska's current population is expected to grow by more than a third over the next quarter century if births, deaths and in- and out-migration take their expected natural courses, a state demographer has predicted.

In an article in the February edition of Alaska Economic Trends published by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, demographer Gregory Williams outlined factors influencing statewide population growth, noting among other things, that the state's large baby boom generation will continue to have a dominant influence on demographic studies well into the future.

Rates of birth, death and migration are the three primary variables affecting population growth or decline, Williams said. Mortality tends to be the most stable, and fertility somewhat less so.

Migration has been robust at times, occasionally far outweighing the impact of collective births and deaths. But those periods come typically during employment booms or busts. Long-term, migration's impact on population growth has been fairly trivial, and as the overall population continues to grow (from 655,435 in fiscal year 2004 to between 730,231 and 888,604 in fiscal year 2029), the influence of migration will decline further.

Noting some of the ups and downs of net migration figures over the years, labor department economist Nels Tomlinson said the fluctuations of the 1970s clearly were tied to the trans-Alaska pipeline project.

In-migration exploded beginning in late 1973 and continued through mid-1977 when a net inflow of some 57,755 was recorded. Construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline began March 27, 1975.

Between mid-1977 — the year the pipeline was completed — and mid-1980, Alaska experienced a net outflow of 20,332.

Migration jumped again from 1981 to 1983 when nearly 46,000 came here. Nearly that many left between 1986 and 1989, a painful economic period.

Tomlinson said the inflow in the early 1980s was probably due to the existence of high wages compared to Outside, a lure that had begun to lose its appeal by the late 1980s.

Since then, the net effect of migration has tended to fall well below the combined effect of annual birth and death figures. There has been a net loss of roughly 2,400 due to migration since mid-1990 (through mid-2004), but a net natural increase in population of nearly 119,000 during the same period.

Migration rarely has exceeded plus or minus 4 percent of the total population, and since 1953, the average of all annual change due to migration has been nearly zero, Williams said. As a factor, migration is expected to have an ever-declining influence on total population change as time goes on, barring some unexpected event.

The average life expectancy of Alaskans is increasing, as would be expected, and it has caught up to that of the nation as a whole. In 1960, Williams reported, average life expectancy for an Alaskan was 2.2 years shorter than counterparts in the Lower 48. By 2000, the average Alaskan was living 77.2 years, the same as the average Outsider in 2001, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and the Alaska Department of Labor. In both areas, women outlive men by about 2 1/2 years.

By 2029, the median age of Alaskans will grow from today's 33.4 years to 35.8 years, due largely to the influence of aging baby boomers. As the number of older women grows, the current disparity between numbers of men and numbers of women (106 males to every 100 females) will disappear by 2029.

Some demographic figures likely are to have an influence on government decisions about spending. As an example, look at schools. Four age groups were used to approximate school age populations: 5-11 for elementary, 12-13 for junior high, 14-17 for high school, and 18-22 for college and post-secondary education.

Williams noted that expected fluctuations in some of those categories might affect spending decisions regarding school construction. For instance, the high school-age population statewide is expected to peak at about 46,300 in 2006 and then decline, not reaching 2006 levels again before 2018.

"Committing to new secondary school construction except in areas with strong in-migration such as Mat-Su or Anchorage will probably be too late for the demand that suggested their need," Williams wrote.

The college-age population is expected to rise to about 51,200 in 2010 and then fall through 2016, not reaching 53,000 until 2029.

"This means that the strongest need for growth in post-secondary institutions and personnel should be in the next five years," Williams said.

The most noticeable and certain population growth over the next 25 years would be among Alaska's elders, Williams said. Some 36,000 residents were 65 or older in 2000. Today that figure is 41,600. At an expected annual increase of 4 percent, by 2029, that number will reach 137,800.

That will have a direct impact on public facilities, and medical, professional and social services, all of which will have to expand.

"Given the lag time necessary to train occupations such as nurses, already in short supply, and to expand home care and assisted living, major effort to meet what already is becoming a crisis in the state cannot begin too soon," Williams said.

The population figures also reveal another unsettling fact of life. According to Williams, in 2004, each 100 Alaskans of working age was supporting 46 children and 10 elders. By 2029, each 100 working Alaskans will support 50 children and 31 elders.

"There is no decline in child dependency, but a tripling of aged dependency," he said. "With nationwide pressure on medical costs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, demographics would indicate strong pressure on the resources of working age and older populations alike."

The state study did not break numbers down to smaller regions. Tomlinson explained that the tighter the geographic boundaries, the less certain become the predictions. He did say demographic figures and economic data show the Matanuska Valley is the fastest growing area in the state as people flock there because land is available and the commute to Anchorage is relatively short.

"People want to be in Anchorage, but there's no room in Anchorage," he said.

Except for the lengthier drive, the Kenai Peninsula has many of the same attractions. Tomlinson suggested that if land becomes more available and the longer drive less of a factor, the peninsula might one day see a similar explosion.

Last fall, the labor department did focus on the peninsula, noting then that its aging population was growing, largely because of the lifestyle, availability of services and other attractions. The department predicted the senior population would become a more powerful economic force.

That would tend to make seniors a growing political force, as well, as their numbers grow as a percentage of the population.

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