(January 2017) Two demographic groups—young adults ages 20 to 34 and older adults ages 65 and older—are reshaping the population in rural America. Changes in the U.S. economy have attracted young adults to rural areas rich in natural resources, such as shale oil and natural gas and away from smaller metropolitan and nearby nonmetropolitan areas, especially those areas with strong ties to the manufacturing industry.1

The older adult population, on the other hand, has grown rapidly in areas with strong ties to recreation—areas with robust entertainment industries or natural amenities such as mountains, lakes, and forests that attract seasonal or vacation populations—many of which are in less-populated areas.

Overall, rural areas in the United States have struggled with shrinking populations as growth over the past 15 years has been concentrated in metropolitan areas. Between 2000 and 2015, about 60 percent of counties in rural America experienced population decline, and only 10 percent experienced rapid growth (see Figure 1).2

But trends among young adults and the older population show where rural population growth is different. Over the same 15-year period, although about 43 percent of rural counties experienced declines in the population ages 20 to 34, 28 percent experienced rapid growth in their young-adult populations. The number of older adults declined in just 26 percent of rural counties, while 21 percent of rural counties experienced rapid gains in the population ages 65 and older.

Some of these age-specific population gains in rural counties can be linked to broad demographic trends, such as the aging of the large baby boom cohort, but other gains are linked to the particular characteristics of counties that have attracted people in different age groups. 

Young Adults Flock to Energy-Rich Counties in Rural Areas

Nationwide, the number of adults ages 20 to 34 rose from 59 million in 2000 to 67 million in 2015—a 14 percent increase—as the large millennial cohort entered adulthood. Rural counties experienced much slower young-adult population growth (8 percent, on average) compared to the United States as a whole during this period, yet this rate of young-adult population growth is striking compared to an average 1 percent decline in total population in rural counties. Some rural areas experienced growth in the number of young adults because of aging in place—young adults who did not move outside of the counties where they lived in 2000 when they were children or teenagers. Other counties experienced young-adult population growth—or decline—because of patterns of net migration.

The recent U.S. energy boom has driven disproportionate growth of the young-adult population in rural areas by prompting more young people to move to—or remain in—energy-rich counties. Sharp increases in shale gas and oil production—the result of new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies over the past 15 years—improved job opportunities in many mining-dependent counties, many of which are in rural areas.3 Indeed, since 2000, the average percent increase in the young adult population across mining-dependent counties (19 percent) was larger than the population growth rate for young adults in the United States as a whole (14 percent).

But young-adult population growth in energy-rich counties has not been universal. Oil- and gas-rich counties in North Dakota, Wyoming, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas had a young-adult population boom—growing by an average of 36 percent—while coal-rich counties in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania faced shrinking young adult populations—declining 13 percent on average. 

Young adults are also moving away from counties with economies that rely heavily on manufacturing. Nearly 60 percent of manufacturing-dependent counties had declining young-adult populations between 2000 and 2015, and of the approximately 1,200 counties that had fewer young adults in 2015 than in 2000, 25 percent were counties with strong ties to the manufacturing industry. Because manufacturing tends to be located in, or adjacent to, small metropolitan counties (counties in metropolitan areas with less than 1 million people), this shift is not reshaping rural America as much as the energy boom. (Only 22 percent of manufacturing counties are in rural areas, compared to over half of mining-dependent counties.) However, many less-populated counties in the Midwest and South are experiencing declines or slow growth in their young-adult populations.

Older Population Increases Rapidly in Amenity-Rich Counties

As the oldest baby boomers began to reach retirement age, the population ages 65 and older grew from 35 million in 2000 to 48 million in 2015—a 36 percent increase. Because of population aging, very few counties experienced a decline in the number of older adults. Only 399 counties (13 percent) had a smaller older-adult population in 2015 than in 2000. However, counties with shrinking older-adult populations are concentrated in rural counties that rely heavily on farming, especially those in the Great Plains. Due to a combination of out-migration and deaths among older adults, nearly half (48 percent) of farming counties had fewer adults ages 65 and older in 2015 than in 2000.

In contrast to the declines in the older-adult populations in many rural farming counties, the older adult population is booming in counties with economies that are dependent on recreation. Across all 332 recreation counties, 64 percent experienced rapid growth in their older-adult populations and only 1 percent experienced population losses.

Although the population under age 65 in recreation counties is also growing, it is not increasing nearly as quickly as for older adults. In fact, the average old-age dependency ratio (the number of older adults per 100 working-age adults ages 20 to 64) increased more for recreation counties than for any other type of county. In 2000, the average recreation county had 28 older adults per 100 working-age adults. By 2015, this ratio rose to nearly 40. All other types of counties—regardless of county size or economic type—had, on average, no more than a 6 percentage-point increase in the old-age dependency ratio.

Many of these recreation-dependent counties are rural or located near small metropolitan areas, and the influx of older adults can be a boon for these less-populated communities. New retirees typically have money to spend, and their presence can increase demand for housing and other services, leading to economic growth. However, the concentration of older-age population growth in recreation areas is not without challenges. Today’s retirees are healthier and more active than ever before, but as they age, their local communities will need to have sufficient health- and aging-related infrastructure to support the growing older population. And unless they can also attract younger adults—who go on to have children—these counties could face rapid population aging and eventually declining populations. 

Recreation counties in the Upper Midwest and Northeast are already experiencing rapid population aging. As older-age population growth in recreation counties is concentrated in the West and in Sun Belt states, the Upper Midwest and Northeast are being left behind. Counties in these areas are either declining or growing more slowly due to a combination of too few births and insufficient in-migration to offset deaths among older adults and out-migration.

As the population ages, it is likely that population growth in recreation counties will persist, and as long as the U.S. energy boom continues, young adults will flock to areas rich in natural resources. In the long-run, these trends point to a revitalization for some rural areas. Overall, however, rural counties continue to struggle with population decline. Indeed, recent signs suggest that baby boomers are more likely to age in place than move post-retirement.4 Also, some gas and oil production sites have closed in response to falling prices.5 Such developments could be bad news for rural areas looking for ways to stop—or at least slow—population loss.    

The authors would like to thank Kelvin Pollard for assistance with data analysis and editing.

Alicia VanOrman is senior research associate for U.S. Programs at PRB. Mark Mather is associate vice president for U.S. Programs at PRB.


1. Counties are classified as urban or rural based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Services Urban Influence Codes (UIC) (2013 edition). Small metropolitan counties are those defined by UIC as being in metropolitan areas with fewer than 1,000,000 people, nonmetropolitan counties are those defined as being adjacent to metropolitan areas, and rural counties are those defined as counties that are not adjacent to metropolitan areas, accessed at www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/urban-influence-codes/documentation.aspx#.UYKQ2kpZRvY. Counties are classified as farming, mining, manufacturing, or recreation based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Services County Typology Codes (2015 edition). The classification scheme uses county-level earnings and employment by place of work to determine the county economic dependence type, accessed at www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/county-typology-codes/.

2. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates, Vintage 2015, accessed at www.census.gov/popest/data/counties/asrh/2015/index.html, on July 15, 2016.

3. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Shale in the United States,” (Nov. 18, 2016), accessed at www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/shale_in_the_united_states.cfm, on Oct. 20, 2016; and U.S. Census Bureau, “Energy Boom Fuels Rapid Population Growth in Parts of Great Plains; Gulf Costa Also Has High Growth Areas, Says Census Bureau,” (March 27, 2014), accessed at www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/cb14-51.html, on Oct. 20, 2016.

4. Hannah Dreier and Hope Yen, “Rural America Post First-Ever Loss in Population,” (June 13, 2013), accessed at www.pjstar.com/x1806086767/Rural-America-posts-first-ever-loss-in-population, on Oct. 20, 2016.

5. Jay Fitzgerald, “Amid Low Prices, U.S. Oil Output May Be Mearing Peak,” (June 6, 2015), accessed at www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/06/05/energy-boom-nearing-its-end/I0Gf9Ny0Ac1tRDHaNZVUpN/story.html, on Oct. 20, 2016.