Duluth's population gets youngerWhile the rest of the state ages, Duluth’s median age has fallen as more young professionals find careers here.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
A funny thing happened to Duluth on the way to the 2010 U.S. Census: The city got younger.
Bucking a Northland and statewide trend, the median age of Duluth’s residents fell from 35.4 to 33.6 between 2000 and 2010, according to Census Bureau data to be released today.
That’s the first youthful trend for the city in decades, and it contrasts sharply with higher median ages across Minnesota (from 35.3 in 2000 to 37.4 in 2010), Wisconsin (36 to 38.5) and St. Louis County (39 to 40.8.).
With Duluth at virtually the same population in 2010 as in 2000, some older people clearly moved out to rural areas, lake homes or southern states, and thousands died.
In the meantime, a sometimes-invisible trend began with young professionals moving to Duluth to take their “second jobs out of college,” said Drew Digby, regional analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Michigan native AJ Matthews moved to the Twin Ports with a master’s degree in microbiology in 2006, first taking a job at the Superior wastewater treatment plant. She’s now 31 and an environmental program coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in Duluth.
The Twin Ports was the second stop on her career ladder after first gaining experience out of college working in Michigan for tribal environmental programs.
“I grew up in a small town on Lake Michigan, so being in this kind of environment really appealed to me,” she said. “And the jobs were here, more than they were in Michigan. It was surprising how many jobs were open, at that time, for people with environmental backgrounds.”
Duluth colleges also added students over the decade — about 2,600 more at UMD and 900 more at St. Scholastica — with 11 percent more 18- to 24-year-olds in the city in 2010 than 2000.
Local economists say the city has become a mini-hub for health care, engineering, architecture, legal, computer science, university, research and other high-tech businesses that need not just well-educated but experienced young professionals. The city’s outdoor lifestyle, growing arts and entertainment scene and inexpensive housing helped draw them in.
“It’s a sign our economy has finally moved into areas that are growing into the future instead of staying in those that were dying in the past,” Digby said, noting that Duluth professionals in their 30s and 40s now have as high or higher-paying jobs than the average Duluthian in his or her 50s. “I think Duluth is getting a little buzz out there among people who like the outdoor lifestyle, and that’s attracting not just students and young professionals but also new investment.”
Mike Malone, now 25, moved from Lakeville, Minn., to study marketing at the University of Minnesota Duluth about seven years ago, and never moved back.
After graduating, Malone got a job as the account manager for the advertising and marketing firm Swim Creative.
“When I first came up here, I did not expect to stay,” he said. But networking with other professionals in Duluth made him realize there were jobs to be had.
“In Duluth, you’re a big fish in a small pond. You’re able to network with a lot of great people around here,” he said. “In this community, it’s more about who you know rather than what you know.”
Since starting at Swim Creative, Malone got married, bought a house in Lakeside, and expects to start a family. Leaving Duluth for a larger city like Minneapolis isn’t in the plans.
“I don’t want to spend my life in a car” commuting to work, he said. “I’ve got a great job in a growing company.”
‘A place young people want to live’
Duluth Mayor Don Ness said the youth movement helps further distance the city from a half-century of economic decline. The city slowly stopped its population loss over the past 20 years and now appears poised to grow new jobs.
“Not only do you need career jobs, but Duluth had to become a place young people want to live, and I think that’s where we’ve made progress over the past decade,” said Ness, who was elected mayor at age 33. “Now we need to translate that young energy and entrepreneurship to lift the rest of our economy.”
Tony Barrett, professor of economics at the College of St. Scholastica, said the increase in college students accounts for a large portion of the median age increase. But he said the increase in young professionals is a positive, driving force for the local economy.
“This is a hugely positive trend if it holds because these (people) are the economic generators of the future,” Barrett said. “The knock on Duluth before was that the good jobs just haven’t been there, even for college grads.”
But Digby said the boomlet doesn’t necessarily translate to everyone. Young Duluthians without the focused college degree, and without some previous experience in their field, are often stuck in “the second tier” of the new economy, often in $10-per-hour jobs that aren’t careers.
Barrett called it a “bipolar” economy, where people who don’t have the specific skills in demand are left out.
“The problem is that the skill set and education they have doesn’t necessarily match the jobs that are available,” Digby said. “There still are not a lot of great first jobs out of high school or college here.”
Fewer children, for now
It certainly wasn’t children that brought Duluth’s median age down. The number of families with children under age 18 declined 6.2 percent from 2000 to 2010. The total number of people under age 18 dropped nearly 11 percent.
The Census data confirms what Duluth school district officials had projected as they sought to combine and close schools in recent years to account for diminishing enrollment.
In 2006, Duluth school officials received a report from a former state demographer that the district probably would continue to lose students through 2016, and then see some increase before flattening out at 2008 levels through 2024. That decline was a driving force in the decision to go from three high schools to two, four middle schools to two, 11 elementary schools to 9 and from 1 K-8 school to none.
“Something like 85 percent of Minnesota school districts are dealing with declining enrollment. There’s just a major trend of fewer children, fewer women in that age demographic having children, that most of us are dealing with,” said Bill Hanson, executive director of business services for the Duluth school district.
But Duluth could see a baby boomlet within the next decade as the city’s new young professionals begin having children. The city may have to wait, however, because other U.S. Census data shows educated, young Americans are waiting longer than ever to have children and they aren’t having as many as their parents or grandparents. The Census calls it the “Delayer Boom.”
Hanson said the school district is projecting a few more students starting in 2014, with that trend holding for a decade.
“I think we’ll see the number of children increasing in Duluth within 10 years when the ‘delayers’ start having families,” Digby said. “But it’s not going to be like the baby boom” of the 1960s.
Another long-expected demographic trend is the bump of baby boomers rising in age. The number of people ages 55 to 59 increased 45 percent, while people ages 60 to 64 increased 53 percent.
Overall, the number of people in Duluth ages 18 to 64 increased 5.6 percent, while the number of people ages 65 to 84 fell 11 percent.
The only exception to the younger trend was among 35- to 54-year-olds, a group that declined by 29 percent. Digby said that could reflect mature families moving to rural areas and less-educated wage earners forced to move their families out of the area to find living-wage work.