The Benefits & Challenges of Walla Walla’s Graying Population

By Dr. Kelley Cullen

Across the US (and even around the globe), increasingly older populations can create challenges for communities. In particular, while older adults bring welcome assets and retirement income to communities, they often need more services, for example in health care or transportation, than younger adults. By watching trends in population by age groups, policymakers might be better prepared to respond to demographic shifts within their communities.

Walla Walla Trends 0.1.3 Share of Population by Age Groups provides data from the Washington State Office of Financial Management (OFM). The OFM population estimates for counties, cities and towns are used in state program administration and in the allocation of selected state revenues. The population projections, and especially the breakdown by age groups, can be helpful in managing county growth.

​​Over the past five years, Walla Walla County has seen an increase in population of more than 2,000 people aged 65 or older. To put that into perspective, presently, one in five residents in the county is over 65. This increase of 19% over the period is comparable to the state average of 19.4% and represents a graying of the state population more broadly. However, in contrast to the state, Walla Walla has seen declines in key age groups both in the levels of population as well as the relative shares making the shift towards an increasingly older population even more dramatic.

On the one hand, declining fertility rates have really impacted the youngest age group - infants under one year old. In the past five years, the county has seen a decline of more than 3% in their youngest residents (age 0 to 1 year) while the state as a whole has seen a slight increase of around 0.3%. While this might not be a pressing concern, ultimately fewer youth entering the school system and transitioning into the labor force could mean there are fewer workers to produce necessary goods and services.

Perhaps more immediately concerning might be that the age groups of 25-44 and 45-64 in Walla Walla have both seen declines in population over the same period. In particular, where the state averaged an increase of 4.6% in residents aged 25-64 (combined), Walla Walla saw an actual decrease of 1.7% in the number of residents in the age group. An increasing group of retirees coupled with a potentially decreasing labor force could put a strain on the county’s economic opportunities.

The fact that Walla Walla is an attractive destination for retirement speaks to county amenities such as scenery, culture and local wineries – things that attract tourists as well. Rising median home resale prices could be reflecting some increase in demand for retirement homes to a welcoming community. While the increased consumption of new retirees could be a boon for the local economy, this growth could become problematic when combined with stagnation in the number of residents of typical working age. While retirees bring their retirement income, but they typically are not full-time participants in the labor force.

Also problematic could be the greater health concerns of an older population. The Covid-19 pandemic pointed out the potential vulnerability of older age groups. In 2020, Covid-19 deaths were the fourth leading cause of death for the county, making up nearly 6% of all deaths for the year. Walla Walla Trends 4.1.2 Share of Deaths by Leading Causes provides data from the Washington State Department of Health. While the county Covid-19 death rate was only slightly higher than the state rate of 5.2%, the drop in life expectancy in just the first year of the pandemic tells a different story.

Life expectancy is often used as a measure of overall community health. Over time, advances in medicine, technology and healthy behaviors have steadily increased life expectancy. However, the large number of extra deaths due to Covid-19 caused widespread declines in life expectancies. Walla Walla Trends 4.1.1 Life Expectancy at Birth shows this stark drop in life expectancy – essentially wiping out years of progress. Washington State fared better than the nation, experiencing a decline of only 8 months compared to the year and a half drop in life expectancy across the US. In Walla Walla, however, the pandemic caused a decline of two years – exceeding both the state and national average even! Most deaths from Covid-19 were amongst the older age groups of the population.

Ultimately, as more older individuals find their way to the beautiful amenities of Walla Walla, it will become important to ensure that there is a steady flow of participants in the local labor force to support the particular demands of the new neighbors. Possible strategies could include enticing younger families to also establish roots in the county or slowing the flow of workers out of the county in search of employment. Ultimately, a healthy economy depends on a well-balanced population distribution that is growing in all age groups.