California has an official state flower (poppy), state insect (dogface butterfly) and state theater (Pasadena Playhouse). But no official state sport – unless you count the great pastime of overestimating our own population growth.
It should be enough that, at 38.7 million, we’re the most populous state in the union. But California’s collective identity is so tied up with our size that we routinely exaggerate it.
We overestimate our population in the present (politicians and pundits have long called this a “state of 40 million,” though we still haven’t reached 39 million) and in the future (we’ve been saying for more than a generation that we’ll be 50 million people by 2020).
Gov. Jerry Brown invoked the 50 million figure last month in urging Californians “to find a more elegant way of relating to material things.”
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The trouble is that, at our current pace, we’ll barely have 40 million people by 2020. California is experiencing the lowest rates of population growth in our history, with flatter immigration and a cratering birthrate.
In the last few years, state government has been quietly, and rapidly, ratcheting down its long-exaggerated estimates. University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers points out that, in 2007, the state Department of Finance projected that California would reach 50 million by 2032. By 2012, that milestone had been delayed until 2049. In the most recent revised projections based on 2014 figures, we don’t hit 50 million until 2051.
Why do we keep overstating our numbers? For two reasons, one nice, one nasty.
The nicer one is our deep attachment to the 1980s, when people came to our state in droves.
It was in 1985 that the Population Reference Bureau first made the 50 million-by-2020 prediction, and the U.S. Census Bureau was still echoing that in the mid-1990s. Such projections have had an understandable hold on us, given California’s growth from less than 2 million in 1900 to 33 million in 2000. It took the Great Recession to convince demographers that we weren’t going back to the ’80s.
So why do the false assumptions persist despite the recent corrections? That’s the nasty reason: Population growth serves ideologues of both the left and the right.
On the left, those warning of the environmentalist apocalypse rely on the Malthusian notion that California is being doomed by endless growth. That’s allowed them to justify opposing the replacement of aging infrastructure and the adoption of new energy sources. The twisted logic goes something like: “Don’t build it and they won’t come.”
On the nativist right, the narrative of endless population growth serves the anti-immigrant cause. Lately, the right has been blaming drought-related water shortages on a supposed surge in immigration that is not in fact taking place.
The irony, unappreciated by environmental left and anti-immigrant right, is that they have already won. California’s population is not growing out of ecological or demographic control.
Few of us have responded to this reality. The narrative that we’re overrun by newcomers crashing our nirvana is too seductive.
But California, with fewer children and a stagnant population, needs to do more for those children, since they will have to be more productive than previous generations. If we want the economic growth to support an aging population, we need to think about how to attract more people from other states and other countries, and retain more of our own people.
Unfortunately, there is little effort aimed at growing our actual population. Perhaps because we’re too busy coping with the boom taking place in our collective imagination.
Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.