Dan Walters

California’s population slows, ages

California’s population has always grown, but its pattern has been that of an adolescent – shooting up dramatically some times, slowing to a crawl in others.

We’re now in another slow-growth period – perhaps permanently.

We saw a massive growth spurt during the 1950s and 1960s as the state’s economy soared, as millions of Americans migrated westward from other regions, and as their fecundity produced the massive post-World War II baby boom.

California’s population nearly doubled during those two decades to 20 million, surpassing New York’s to become the nation’s largest.

However, as the baby boom ended and the state’s industrial economy underwent a dramatic downsizing in the 1970s, population growth slowed dramatically to a fraction of its previous rate, leading many, including political leaders, to believe that it would never soar again.

Under two governors, Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jerry Brown, the state cut back on infrastructure spending that had mushroomed during the previous era. Brown termed it “an era of limits.”

The 1970s were, however, merely a lull before another demographic storm. A post-industrial economic boom, a new surge of migration – this one from other nations, rather than other states – and a new baby boom pushed population growth upward again during the 1980s and early 1990s.

California added 6 million souls between 1980 and 1990, an eye-popping 26 percent gain. Highways became congested with millions of new cars, school districts that had seen enrollment declines in the 1970s and closed schools scrambled to handle a new surge of students, and other facilities became strained.

But as severe recession hit in the 1990s, sparked by the post-Cold War collapse of the aerospace/defense industry, more than a million Californians packed up and left the state. We continued to grow but at scarcely half the rate of the previous decade.

Growth dropped even more during the 21st century’s first decade to under 10 percent, and the state Department of Finance projects that it will slide to about 9 percent in this decade, just a bit higher than the national growth rate.

Foreign immigration is half of what it was in the 1980s, we lose more people to other states than we gain, the birthrate has declined sharply and deaths will rise as the huge baby boom cohort becomes the elderly.

In many ways, a growth rate that’s barely a third of what we saw in the 1980s is not a bad thing. It somewhat reduces pressure on an infrastructure – from highways to colleges to water systems – that is clearly strained beyond capacity.

There are, however, other potential consequences that aren’t as positive, such as a shortage of labor for a technology-heavy economy as baby boomers retire in droves – if the education system fails to produce qualified replacements.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.