1 of 12
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Nutnicha Chanon and her mother, Kanda Chanon, work at Chanon Thai in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Youth, population growth and increasing diversity are at the heart of new 2015 population estimates for Utah officially released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Utah remains the youngest state in the country, having a median age of 30.7, compared with the median age of the U.S. of 37.8. Utah and Cache counties are both among the 10 youngest counties in the nation, with median ages of 24.5 and 24.9, respectively.

The structure of Utah's diversity is shifting, with non-Hispanic Asians now surpassing Latin Americans as representing the majority of immigrants to the state. The state's Hispanic population last year also crossed the 400,000 threshold, approaching 14 percent of Utah's overall populace.

And despite Utah's relative youth, the state's median age is going up with that of the nation, and the number of people 65 and older is growing as the baby boom generation moves into retirement age.

"For the foreseeable future, growth is really our constant companion here in Utah. The population continues to age," said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

"But we also continue to see this place as a place of economic opportunity and educational opportunity and quality of life," she said. "We're attracting some financial and technical businesses that are bringing highly educated young adults to our state. We maintain our position as a place where young people want to come."

Driving diversity

Utah's recovery from the Great Recession has shaped economic and social landscapes differently from what existed before 2010. Immigration trends have also changed, especially in sectors bound with a longer recovery from the recession, such as housing.

Immigration flows from Latin America, which were closely connected with the housing boom and service-sector jobs, surged during the 1990s and early 2000s. When the housing boom ended, Latin American immigration slowed precipitously, and some population estimates even showed a reverse flow back to Mexico and other countries due to loss of employment.

"Different occupations, different flows of people for different opportunities," Perlich said.

In contrast, growth in the state's population of non-Hispanic Asians outpaced that of other minority groups between 2010 and 2015, growing by 29.5 percent to 70,971 people, according to Thursday's census estimates.

"We can see that since 2010, the regions of in-migration for Utah have shifted away from Latin America and much more toward Asia," Perlich said. "About half of our foreign-born population that entered since 2010 is from Asia, and the proportion from Latin America is down."

Industries with strong ties to Asian immigrants have been expanding in recent years, such as technology, finance and higher education. In Salt Lake County, for example, the tract with the largest number and proportion of Asians is the one surrounding the University of Utah campus, Perlich said.

Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for academic affairs at the university, said there are institutional attractions that contribute to having one of the most ethnically diverse body of student and faculty. That includes research opportunities and programs that focus on international societal challenges. But it also includes an immigrant-friendly community.

"United States higher education has long been a world model, particularly in research universities," Watkins said. "There's also the special Utah factor which is a very welcoming community. … The climate that goes with that has a powerful draw."

There are challenges to having an increasingly diverse campus, such as adequate housing space for international students and resources to help new international faculty acclimate to a new job. Some challenges are altogether unpredictable, according to Kathryn Stockton, the university's vice president for equity and diversity.

But many difficulties of immigrant life will improve as those populations get bigger, Stockton said.

"Once people are coming in greater numbers, the possibility for cohorts forms," Stockton said. "That's really what helps professors from other countries and students from other places really find that sense of belonging. And belonging, in many ways, is the key for people to succeed."

Utah's youth

Racial diversity is also contributing to the state's relative youth. The majority of Utahns — non-Hispanic Caucasians — had a median age of 32.4 in 2015. That's older than any other racial group identified in Thursday's Census estimates.

For Hispanic Utahns, the median age was 24.4; for blacks, it was 26.2; American Indians were 28.7; Asians were 31.8; and non-Hispanic Pacific Islanders were 26.2.

The youngest group, with a median age of 16.8, were non-Hispanics of multiple races. That group includes children of mixed heritage, often with one parent being a recent immigrant, Perlich said.

"If we look at America in 2050 or Utah in 2050, multi-heritage kids, multi-heritage people are going to be a larger and larger share of the population," she said. "It is one of our fastest-growing race groups."

Diversity within different age groups also illustrates an evolving social landscape. In Salt Lake County, for example, 94 percent of people 65 and older identified as white, while that group represents 85 percent of residents ages 14 and younger.

While Utah's retirement-age population is growing, it is still the second-smallest in the country. In 2015, 10.3 percent of Utah's populace was made up of people 65 and older, just behind Alaska at 9.9 percent.

Census estimates have long observed Utah's higher fertility rates and larger families. Nearly 24 percent of Utahns were at the age for K-12 school enrollment, compared with 18 percent for the nation. But births have been dropping in the state since 2008.

Those declines could be visible in school enrollments as soon as next year, possibly leveling off within the next 10 years, according to Perlich. And the prospect of fewer new students could bring some relief for state and education leaders, who last year had to facilitate almost 12,000 new pupils entering the state's education system.

"We should be able to get a kind of a breather there," Perlich said. "Exactly what those numbers will be depends upon the migration patterns because we've got better employment growth here than a lot of other places."

National estimates

Growth in diversity throughout the U.S. was largely thanks to natural increase, with more births than deaths among most ethnic minorities. Hispanics included some 56.6 million people last summer, an increase of 1.2 million or 2.2 percent from the year before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

6 comments on this story

The nation's white population increased by 0.5 percent that year to 255 million, almost 80 percent of the country's overall population of 320 million. Black residents increased by 1.3 percent to 46.3 million. And the nation's American Indian and Alaska Native population increased by 1.5 percent to 6.6 million.

But the Asian population, which increased 3.4 percent to 21 million, stood apart as growing largely due to net migration, mirroring trends occurring in Utah.

In 2015, the most frequent age in the country was 24, with 4.7 million people. America's youngest generation, those born since 2000, grew by 7.3 percent to include 61 million people, according to Census estimates.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen