Recent population projections from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania show an estimated 30-year growth rate of 1.6% for the state, with an aging population that will soon outnumber the younger generation.
What will the population of Pennsylvania look like in 30 years? The Center for Rural Pennsylvania has an idea and it could mean the state has to start planning now for the demographic shift that will greatly affect many factors in the commonwealth.
According to a recent population projection published by the Center, in partnership with the Pennsylvania State Data Center, the commonwealth’s population is expected to increase in 2030 and 2040, with a slight decline by 2050. This leads to an estimated 30-year growth rate of 1.6%. As a point of comparison, Pennsylvania’s overall population grew at a rate of 2.4% between 2010 and 2020.
The state’s rural population is projected to decline 5.8% over the next 30 years while the total urban population is expected to grow 4.1%. In 2020, 26% of residents lived in rural counties compared with an estimated 24% projected in 2050. That is equivalent to nearly 600,000 people shifting between rural and urban communities over the next 30 years.
Westmoreland County is the only county in the state projected to transition from an urban to a rural county by 2050. A county is considered rural when the population density is less than the statewide density of 284 people per square mile.
Population growth in Pennsylvania is expected to be concentrated in the southeast part of the state, with counties farther north and west witnessing more population decline.
“There are pockets of growth, but generally speaking we will see a population decrease overall,” said Dr. Kyle Kopko, executive director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. “Our population is aging. There are more baby boomers and smaller families. The birth rate will be lower. There will be fewer young people coming through the pipeline. This will affect every type of policy in the state.”
The population projection shows a sharp increase in the number of residents over the age of 65, while the statewide birth rate will decrease. This, Kopko said, means that over the next 30 years, the number of rural Pennsylvanians over the age of 65 will outnumber those under the age of 20.
Why does this matter?
“We are looking at 600,000 more senior citizens in Pennsylvania by the end of the decade,” Kopko said. “We already have a waitlist at assisted living facilities. How do we address the aging population needs?”
The shift in age will also have significant implications on workforce and economic planning, as governments and the private sector adapt to supporting more retired and elderly residents with a smaller workforce, Kopko said.
Pennsylvania’s retirement-age population will peak in 2035, suggesting that the economic adjustments to support the aging population may require immediate action. This change will undoubtedly affect a wide range of policies across the state, including, but not limited to, housing, health care, education, and transportation.
What’s more, Kopko added, with a smaller younger population, does the state keep the same number of school districts, buildings, number of teachers, numbers of buses, etc.
Pennsylvania also has a large number of farmers, who supply food and other products to the state. This is another area the commonwealth has to keep a close eye on with the population projections.
“In Pennsylvania, we have a lot of farmers. For them, the land is their retirement,” Kopko said. “They either pass it along to the next generation or sell it off. If that next generation isn’t willing to take it on then what do they do? They sell it off and it becomes a housing development. This will affect our food supply. What does that mean for us as the years go by? It could mean that you won’t see as many farms.”
But it’s not just the aging, rural population that will be affected. With an increase in urban populations, Kopko said, the state’s cities will see more traffic, and more development. That could mean enacting more policies to protect residents and assisting those who need help with housing costs.
“Planners are going to have their work cut out for them,” Kopko said. “There could be ways of adapting, we just need to make sure those tools and systems are in place so we can help our communities address the population change over time. Some places will grow; some will stay the same; some will shrink. We can’t take a one size fits all approach.”
Kopko said the Center is already planning public presentations and talks around the population projections in an effort to get the ball rolling now on changes that will need to take place in the future.
“The population projections are based on birth rates, death rates, and migration patterns,” Kopko said. “Data isn’t our destiny. There are things we can do to adapt and manage it. Planning is going to be key here. This is manageable. It’s just going to take some time and planning ahead.”