Blog: Utah’s Future: The Long View

Blog: Utah’s Future: The Long View

By: Pamela Perlich

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.

We are still in the early stages of understanding and responding to the public health, economic, and personal impacts of the coronavirus COVID-19 in Utah.  It is becoming clear that, in the short run, these events will challenge our institutions and people by disrupting economic activity, straining public health resources, and imposing stresses on our neighborhoods, households, and individuals.  How will these unfolding events impact Utah’s future, looking out 20 or even 50 years from now? Bottom line: the fundamental drivers of Utah’s demographic growth remain, even with the imminent short-run disruptions.

We focus much of our research at the Gardner Institute identifying and modeling the long-run trends shaping the Utah population and economy over the next half-century. In this work, we explicitly recognize that a precise view of the future is unknown and unknowable. We also acknowledge that we are active participants in shaping what Utah will become. Our practices and investments today guide the Utah of tomorrow. So how do we model Utah’s future given our shared responsibility to co-create it as well as the inherent uncertainty of life? And how does COVID-19 or even our next recession affect the long view of Utah’s future population? To answer these questions, let me first explain how we construct our projections.

Our long-run projections distill data and research to reveal the most fundamental drivers of Utah’s demographic and economic structure and dynamics. We ground our work in population science, economic analyses, and historical studies. We contextualize and customize our models to capture the uniqueness of Utah’s population, institutions, economy, and evolving interconnections with the outside world. We incorporate macro trends as they permeate and transform Utah.

The current demographic growth dynamic has been persistent in Utah for more than a century. Since 2010 Utah has had the most rapid population growth rate among all states. Natural increase has consistently contributed to this growth and the youthfulness of Utah as births exceed deaths.

Utah surpassed 3 million residents in 2015 as the Great Wasatch Front Region has emerged as a global metropolitan area. Since 1990, more people have consistently moved into Utah than have left. People come for economic, educational, and recreational opportunities. They tend to be young adults who contribute to the creative and productive capacity of our state. They come from all over the world, bringing new intellectual traditions and funds of knowledge. Our students report they speak 145 languages in their homes. We are becoming more multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual. And this diversity is concentrated in our youth.

For the foreseeable future, the fundamental drivers of Utah’s demographic growth and change will remain.  We project that Utah’s population will exceed 5 million by 2050. Implicit in these projections are the assumptions that we will continue to be good stewards of this place and our people. This assumes that we will adapt our investments to support healthy communities and people and to maintain our quality of life. We must adjust investments and programs to support the success of the next generation. We will face challenges together, expand life opportunities for prosperity for our residents, and protect the vulnerable among us.

How will the pandemic affect Utah 50 years into the future? We are collectively marshaling resources and developing strategies to protect our communities and people. We will adjust investments, programs, and practices to meet these formidable challenges. In the process, we will discover new possibilities and capabilities that will open our eyes to new paths to our shared future. We will gain a greater appreciation for the depth and breadth of cultural and technical capabilities that are undiscovered or underutilized in communities throughout the state.

We share the responsibility to manage and mitigate this public health threat. The fundamental drivers of Utah growth remain. Our challenge is to contribute to solutions and provide support as we are able. We have never been more affluent, resilient, and capable as a collective. Creating Utah’s future has always been our responsibility. In Utah, for the foreseeable future, growth and change will be our constant companions.

Pamela Perlich is the director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.