The Van Trump Report

America’s Rural Workforce Continues to Shrink as Small Towns Get More Grey

This year’s “Rural America at a Glance” places a heavy emphasis on the shrinking rural workforce as small-town America’s population continues to age at a faster clip than its urban counterparts. That’s despite the fact that nonmetropolitan areas grew at a faster rate than metropolitan areas during 2020–21 due to a sharp turnaround in migration flows occurring in the first year and a half of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In 2021, people 65 years and older made up over 20% of the nonmetro population for the first time in history, compared with 16% of the metro population. Below are more details from “Rural America at a Glance 2022,” which is available from the USDA’s Economic Research Service HERE.   

America’s Rural Population Increased Dramatically During 2020-21

  • Metropolitan (metro) and nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) population trends shifted dramatically with the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Population growth in metro areas was +0.5 percent from July 2018 to July 2019 but fell to an unprecedented low of +0.1 percent growth during the same period from 2020 to 2021.
  • Natural population change (births minus deaths) also declined in nonmetro areas in recent years. In fact, nonmetro areas began showing an overall natural decrease (more deaths than births) for the first time beginning in 2017. The rate remained close to zero until, with the arrival of COVID-19, the natural change went from a -0.005-percent decline in 2018–19 to a -0.3-percent decline over 2020–21.
  • Despite this natural decrease, overall population growth in nonmetro counties took a dramatic upswing during 2020–21, from a -0.1-percent decline from July 2019 to July 2020 to a +0.3-percent increase in the following 12 months. USDA equates this to a turnaround in migration flows between metro and nonmetro counties that occurred during the first year and a half of the pandemic, leading to nonmetro population gains from net in-migration that more than offset losses from the natural decrease.

Rural America Aging Faster Than Metro Areas

  • The overall U.S. population has been aging as the baby-boom generation entered their 60s and 70s. In nonmetro areas, this aging trend was accelerated by historical patterns of outmigration among young adults and in-migration of older adults to rural retirement destinations. However, while the increase in net migration into nonmetro counties during the pandemic added to the nonmetro working-age population, it was not enough to offset the number of residents turning 65 during this same period.
  • In 2021, people 65 years and older made up over 20% of the nonmetro population for the first time in history, compared with 16% of the metro population. 
  • Corresponding declines in the relative size of the working-age population (18–64 years) were also higher in nonmetro areas. In 2021, 58% of nonmetro residents were 18–64 years old, compared with 61% of metro residents.
  • USDA notes that declines in the working-age population may make it harder to meet labor demands in some rural industries and local labor markets. At the same time, many rural areas lack sufficient health care capacity, broadband service, community centers, and other services to address the challenges associated with an aging population.

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