1 of 7
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Millennials are the most diverse group they've ever been. Ashley Hamilton, Aaron Wilson and Rozalyn Smith, students at BYU walk between classes Wednesday, June 24, 2015, in Provo.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's population continues to hold onto a national trend that local researchers say is "cumulative, ongoing and irreversible."

Utah's median age of 30.5, though getting higher, is still the lowest in the nation, and its diversity, though behind the national average, is increasingly reflective of a globally connected population, according to a report of 2014 estimates released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We're finding that the trends we've been watching for well over 15 years now are just continuing to play out and accumulate in that the state is becoming more diverse, (and) that diversity is really concentrated much more so in the youth than the older generations," said Pamela Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

"Utah is emerging as a member of the global community," she said.

Millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000, make up more than one-fourth of the nation's population at roughly 83.1 million, which this year outnumbered the nation's baby boomer population of 75.4 million, according to the Census report.

That transition occurred back in 2010 for Utah. And last yeear, people ages 65 and older made up only 10 percent of the state's population, a rate second-lowest in the nation. In the same year, millennials made up a portion of the population almost three times as high, according to the new Census estimates.

Net migration to the state slowed significantly during the Great Recession, but much of having a large young adult populace is thanks to the number of young families formed in decades prior to the economic downturn, Perlich said.

"Here in Utah, millennials outnumbered post-World War II baby boomers by 2010, and that did not happen nationally until 2015," she said. "The reason we're that far ahead of the curve in that trend is because we had a larger net in-migration rate of young adults during the big boom years — mid-1990s all the way up until 2008."

Salt Lake County in 2014 continued to have the largest millennial population at 336,089, followed by Utah and Davis counties. Areas along the Wasatch Front had more than three-quarters of Utah's millennials, but Cache County had the most millennials as a portion of the population at 37.8 percent.

Utah County had Utah's youngest median age last year at 24.3 and is one of the few counties whose median age was less than it was in 2010. Piute County had the oldest median age at 46.2, which rose by almost six years since 2010, according to the Census report.

Utah's rising median age, as well as that of the nation, is due to an aging baby boom population, those born between 1946 and 1964, according to Perlich. Wasatch and Washington counties saw the largest influx of baby boomers, with increases of 18.6 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively. This corresponds with Census estimates released last month that showed Wasatch and Washington counties leading the state in housing growth.

Last year, the age with the largest increase was 67.

Generational shift

As president of Salt Lake Community College, Deneece Huftalin sees the trends of millennial growth and aging boomers unfold year after year, both among students and college employees. They're trends that aren't limited to colleges and universities.

"From an organizational viewpoint, when boomers retire, I worry about the oral history and the institutional history that we'll lose alongside that," Huftalin said. "As a manager, as a CEO, folks who are loyal to the company and really care and really invest in it for a long period of time, that's hard to replace."

At the same time, she said, there are promising advantages to a transitioning age demographic.

"I think the millennials bring a great sense of hope and opportunity. They see a lot of possibilities in the ways they could frame their lives, and they're really interesting in terms of challenging the status quo thinking," she said. "That energy is really exciting to me because they see new ways of doing things, and that's kind of disruptive in the learning environment and in the work environment."

Millennials and their children are rapidly filling seats in schools, which are expected to take on an additional 50,000 students for higher education in the next decade, and 385,000 new K-12 students by 2050.

A report released early this month by Voices for Utah Children showed the number of residents below the poverty line is declining. But a growing student population still poses challenges for policymakers and educators. Of those below the poverty line, 36 percent were under age 18, and almost one-third of those were under age 5, according to the report.

"That has to be on the minds of policymakers that we have an ever-growing child population," Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children, said when the report was released. "Even if we start improving in some of these areas, the numbers are getting larger."

Utah's birth rate, however, has slowed since 2008 when the economic recession began. Between 2010 and 2014, the population ages 4 and younger dropped by 4 percent, projecting that Utah's student population will start to level out over time, according to the Census estimates.

Huftalin said the generational shift and the growing student population will help bring innovation to the classroom, both in public and higher education.

"I think it's a changing face of Utah, and that scares some people," she said. "But I think it's fantastic. It brings just a whole new way of learning."

Global connections

In addition to becoming more numerous, Utah's students and millennials are getting used to a social environment quite different from that of their parents and grandparents.

Last year, almost 27 percent of preschoolers were minorities, while only 7.1 percent of Utahns ages 85 and older were minorities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the 179,000 residents Utah gained between 2010 and 2014, more than 70,300 of them were minorities. That means that four in every 10 new Utahns are minorities, according to the estimates.

While Salt Lake County holds about 37 percent of the state's entire population, it contains roughly half of the state's minority population. Utah as a whole still lags the nation in ethnic diversity, but minorities consistently make up a greater percentage of Utah residents each year, especially among millennials.

"We're seeing the baby boom generation move into the older age groups, and at this point, it is eclipsed numerically by the millennial generation here in Utah," Perlich said. "And those millennials are much more ethnically, racially, linguistically and culturally diverse than are those baby boomers."

But the Census estimates are, if anything, an understatement of Utah's cultural mix, Perlich said. Minorities such as those from the Middle East, or refugees from places like Bosnia and Croatia who now live in Utah, aren't listed as minorities in the Census report.

"We've got much, much more diversity than what these data would recognize," she said.

At the heart of what makes Utah a hub for the young and diverse are institutional ties that extend across borders. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, now has more members outside of the U.S. than in it, and some 88,000 missionaries currently serve in more than 400 missions throughout the world.

"This is now, very clearly and profoundly, an international religion, and that connects Utah globally," Perlich said.

In addition to the church, refugee immigration and a strong labor market, Perlich said, Utah's colleges and universities also draw a variety of people, bringing cultural experience and globally competitive talent to Utah.

"You pull the University of Utah out of Salt Lake County, you have a completely different look," she said. "We've got a very large presence of international people at our universities, and those international connections are all intertwined with business development and all kinds of other trade relationships."

For Salt Lake Community College, serving a diverse student body means having to find unconventional ways of improving access to higher education. Most barriers are financial, but often there are more subtle challenges to overcome.

"As a higher education institution, we have to change the way we do things to make college feel more comfortable, more welcoming," Huftalin said. "Some of that means going to them, not waiting for them to walk in our doors, but going to the community centers in the neighborhoods where these populations are growing … so that they see college on their own terms."

Utah overall is still far from becoming minority-majority, though Perlich said it will happen "within a couple of generations." But that has already occurred in some Utah neighborhoods.

The Salt Lake City School District has been majority-minority for more than a decade. And in a place where more than 100 languages are spoken at home, there are both challenges and opportunities for students while they're at school.

"The challenge is … you potentially have some barriers in learning English and finding access to translated materials. But those are, I think, pretty good challenges to have," Superintendent McKell Withers said. "It's pretty amazing to have that diversity, because a lot of strength comes from that diversity."

Withers said when students grow up in an environment with a variety of cultural associations, they're able to familiarize themselves with the "bigger world" in ways that benefit them later in life.

"Kids are generally far more open and accepting of each other, and the younger they are, the more interesting that is to them," he said. "The differences that people maybe initially don't recognize or understand can fairly quickly turn into differences that they not only appreciate, but grow some affinity to and start to celebrate."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen