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And another thing: Utah, the beehive shape

Why you should care about the Beehive State's pyramid of life

New data shows that even the youngest state in the nation is facing an aging problem.
New data shows that even the youngest state in the nation is facing an aging problem.
Aaron Thorup, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Let’s talk about fertility, baby.

OK, it's not much of a pickup line. But the fact is that even the youngest state in the nation is facing an aging problem.

To better understand how births and deaths impact a community's economy, it's helpful to look at a population pyramid.

Population pyramids are a visual tool that demographers use to show a community’s age and sex distribution.

Men are on the left; women are on the right. And the ages go from top to bottom, with newborns at the bottom and older adults at the top.

Here’s a visualization produced by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, showing the state’s current population pyramid overlaid on top of what demographers think the pyramid is going to look like in 50 years.

Source: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute

Utah’s pyramid is Christmas tree-shaped — skinny at the top, wide at the bottom, meaning that there are a lot more young people than there are old people and that each generation is bigger than the next.

The indent around ages 18 to 24 is what Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the institute, calls the “missionary cave.” At the age of 18 for boys and 19 for girls, many Utahns leave the state to serve their LDS missions — enough to put a visible dent in Utah’s population pyramid.

But there’s an issue.

Adults in Utah and the U.S. are living longer and having fewer children than ever before.

Over time, researchers predict, the bottom of Utah's population pyramid will get more pinched and the top will get wider, making the Christmas tree look more like a beehive.

It’s a trend that can be seen in developed countries around the world.

Take Italy, which has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, or Japan, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Their population pyramids are also expected to become increasingly top-heavy over time.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

France, in contrast, has one of the highest birth rates in Europe. And even though the French population pyramid has some pinching, it has a much more balanced ratio of young to old people than Italy or Japan.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

These are all developed countries. Why the difference in population distribution?

Perlich says a woman’s decision to have children can be influenced by several factors, including the economy, cultural attitudes, parental leave policies and child care costs.

France has long boasted one of the best parental leave policies in the world, including four months of paid maternity leave (and up to 6 ½ months for your third child or up), a guarantee that you can have your job back if you choose to return and generously subsidized child care.

Italy and Japan, on the other hand, have more strict parental leave policies, less affordable child care and stricter societal expectations about the roles of women in the workforce. All these factors make it harder for women who bear children to continue working.

Economically speaking, that's "a very high penalty for women having children," Perlich said.

So what does this mean for Utah and the U.S.?

Even though the Beehive State has the highest birth rate in the U.S., Perlich's projections show that Utah is going the way of the rest of the nation. And that has significant implications for young people.

As baby boomers and the children of baby boomers start settling into their golden years, they will put tremendous pressure on younger Utahns to help support them.

And as the trend plays out across the country, it will strain the country's health care, housing and other resources like Social Security and Medicare, with rapidly aging states like New Hampshire getting hit first and relatively young states like Texas having longer to prepare.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

That’s why Perlich says state and national policymakers should, indeed, be talking about fertility.

"You're going to end up with all these centenarians, lots of frail old folks, and it's never happened before," she said. “We’re going to be the biggest elderly demographic burden in the history of humanity. That's why it's quite urgent for us to invest in the next generations."

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And Another Thing takes you behind the numbers to reveal the quirky and unexpected and to explain the trends shaping Utah and its future.