Walla Walla Is Greying, But For Now Staying Young, Too

by Dr. Patrick Jones

Is demographics destiny in Walla Walla? You might be familiar with the saying that implies age, gender, racial and ethnic mix of a society sets the rails for its outcomes. The concept smacks of the concept of predestination, that is that our fate is sealed from birth.

The destiny interpretation strikes this writer as a bit strong. Nonetheless, demographics certainly influence outcomes, whether at the national or here. In this column, the key demographic of age distribution is taken up.

Indicator 0.1.3 offers an aggregated look at a population pyramid over time – for the county and Washington state. Four age groups are defined:  0-17, 18-34, 35-64 and 65+. For each group, a share of the total population is presented by year. Data on the actual estimated counts are available in a spreadsheet via the “Download Data” tab of the graph.

A comparison of Walla Walla’s 2018 age distribution to that of Washington’s shows remarkable concordance for the youngest two groups. That is, the shares of the 0-17 and 18-34 groups are virtually the same:  about 22% and 23%, respectively. Through the lens of these two groups, Walla Walla County is as young as the state.

The same cannot be said for the two older groups. One is much smaller proportionally and the other much larger than the state. Taking up the former, we observe that the group of 35-64 represented about 35% of the county population in 2018, versus approximately 39% for the state. As those online can easily detect, the share of this population locally has stayed constant over the past 20 years. So has the age group’s share in the state.

The 65+ category also shows a significant departure from state averages. In 2018, its share of the Walla Walla population was 19.5% versus 15.8% in Washington. This age group has also shown the greatest growth over the past 20 years, moving from 15% of the population to its current share of nearly one fifth. While large, this age category is not the largest among eastern Washington metros. The greater Wenatchee area currently carries a slight edge to Walla Walla.

To some degree, the growth of the 65+ age group is merely a reflection of the path of the boomer generation over time. For the state as a whole, the share of the 65+ group has moved 11.4% to nearly 16% over the same period. But the indicator clearly shows that a larger senior population, relative to the state, has always claimed Walla Walla home for the entire period covered.

What are the consequences of a disproportionately large older population? And what are the consequences of a disproportionately smaller prime working age population? Taking up the impact of seniors first, we can expect local demand for goods and services to be heavily influenced by the market basket of this age group. At a minimum, this implies a strong need for healthcare services, retirement planners, personal care services and appropriate real estate offerings – likely smaller dwellings equipped with “aging in place” design.

And the local mix of goods and services already reflects this emphasis. As Trends Indicator 1.3.5 tracking employment shares of the five largest sectors shows, the share of the workforce in healthcare and social assistance most recently lay at 15%, considerably higher than the state average.

What are the consequences of a relatively small share of the prime working ages in Walla Walla? The first concerns earnings. This is the time in a person’s career where salaries peak, especially in the middle segment of the age group. A relatively small percentage of the population, coupled with a larger senior population, augurs lower total earnings in the local economy.

A second consequence concerns workforce. For most businesses to grow, they require more workers. While the adjacent age groups, especially the 18-34 group, offer help, typically the 35-64 group provides the largest pool of workers. If this group is relatively small, then economic growth prospects might be constrained. On the other hand, Walla Walla County, at least its western portion, enjoys the advantage of the large labor pool of the Tri Cities.

A third consequence, at least for the first half of the age group, concerns children. With relatively few in the prime child-rearing age group, schools might face declining enrollments. In fact, that has occurred in the county. For the past 18 years, total student count has increased cumulatively by 2.9% while the state-wide count has climbed 13%.

A fourth consequence concerns traditional media use. While television and newspapers likely enjoy a strong market 65+ market in Walla Walla, they also rely on the 35-64 age group. The relatively small footprint of the latter group can make for a more limited reach of traditional media.

Is there an ideal mix of ages for any community? Probably not. Most would undoubtedly like a blend of ages, unless one wants Walla Walla to resemble a dedicated college town or a northern latitude version of Sun City. From an economic development perspective, it probably would be helpful for the county to contain a slightly higher share of 35-64 year-olds.

It strikes this observer that for the foreseeable future, the share of the 65+ group will continue to climb. First, that’s the inevitable consequence of boomers aging. Second, although we don’t have data on in-migrants, it seems likely that a good portion of new residents are in, or close to, that age range. And as Indicator 0.2.1 shows, nearly all of Walla Walla’s recent population growth can be attributed to net in-migration. Third, local birth rates are relatively low, so the 0-17 group’s share is likely to slip. Fourth, college enrollments, contributing a large portion to the 18-34 group, have been flat. It is unlikely that this trend line will move much.

This evolving age mix will mean a different Walla Walla than a generation ago. One which should bring many benefits as well as challenges. Enjoying the greying!