Shifting demographics create challenges, opportunities

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for Triangle Community Foundation. I am working with the Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

RALEIGH, N.C. — Mirroring national and state trends, the Triangle is undergoing sweeping changes in who we are and how we live and work, creating challenges and opportunities for nonprofits that address human needs, for government agencies that provide and plan for basic services, and for businesses that operate in the marketplace.

The population is getting grayer and browner. Families and households are getting smaller, many consisting of a single person, and others encompassing multiple generations. And the labor force is headed for big shortages.

“These demographic changes have implications for how we plan for our communities,” says Mitchell Silver, chief planning and development officer for the city of Raleigh and director of its department of city planning. “It’s better to be prepared than to be in denial.”

‘Silver tsunami’

By 2030, one in five North Carolinians and Americans will be over age 65, and by 2050, life expectancy will be 82.6 years, says Silver, who just completed a two-year term as president of the American Planning Association.

The graying of America, combined with an exodus of young people from rural regions, has led to a declining population in many rural counties, including roughly 25 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Silver says.

That decline, coupled with the migration of those young people to urban areas, has led to a shrinking tax base and workforce in rural counties, he says.

Whether they live in urban, suburban or rural areas, he says, older Americans who no longer can drive have fewer choices about how to get around and get access to health care and other services they need.

That is particularly true in rural counties because many people do not live as close to health services as they do in urban areas.

“A huge issue as people age is what are they going to do in terms of mobility,” Silver says.

And as a result of the “Baby Bust” that followed the “Baby Boom” — the surge in births from 1946 through 1964 — there are “not enough workers to take care of Boomers as they age,” Silver says. “It’s a ‘silver tsunami.’ Most of us aren’t prepared for what’s coming.”

Senior housing

Seniors also are looking for different types of housing, Silver says.

They want master bedrooms on the ground floor, fewer steps to climb, and easier access to their home if they use a wheelchair.

“Currently the market doesn’t provide for that type of housing in large quantity,” he says.

Emil Malizia, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of its Institute for Economic Development, says many older people have fewer options for where to live.

So while a number of pricey “congregate care retirement communities” have been developed in the Triangle, their cost is beyond the means of many elderly people, who likely will need to stay in their homes.

College towns like Durham and Chapel Hill also have become retirement destinations, mainly because they are home to university medical centers that provide good medical care,  and they offer relatively inexpensive entertainment, Malizia says.

Mobile services

Mack Koonce, president and CEO of United Way of the Greater Triangle, says a big challenge for nonprofits will be to “learn to take services” to older constituents.

That will require both “mobile” services and “place-based” services, he says.

Meals on Wheels in Durham, Orange and Wake counties, for example, received a funding increase this year from United Way that was bigger than the average increase for United Way agencies overall, Koonce says.

“Over the next couple of years, we and other organizations are going to expand our support for mobile services,” he says.

Wave of volunteers

The aging of the population, Koonce says, will create a big wave of volunteers and people looking for second careers who nonprofits “need to continue to engage.”

So nonprofits should look for ways to connect with people who are retired or semi-retired, he says.

“That’s a huge resource we all need to tap into,” he says.

It also will be important for nonprofits to engage the increasingly diverse mix of constituents — reflecting such differences as age, ethnicity and gender — in helping to identify needs and develop strategies to address them, he says.

Household shifts

The size of families and households is getting smaller, with fewer people getting married, particularly those age 25 to 34, Silver says, and the birth rate overall is declining, dropping dramatically among whites.

Hispanics are not having as many children as their parents did, he says, although they still are having more children, while the birth rate for blacks is roughly flat.

Because fewer people are getting married, and the number of widowers is growing, most households in the U.S. by 2025 will consist of one person only, Silver says.

The number of multi-generational households also is increasing, and many seniors who cannot care for themselves, or afford to, are moving in with their children, while many students during the recession moved home after college because they could not find jobs.

Affordable housing

Silver says many local governments are not prepared to deal with the implications of the surge in single-person households.

Individuals looking for a home increasingly are looking for a small home, and they increasingly prefer to rent rather than to own, he says.

Yet new development in most communities typically consists of single-family subdivisions.

“What type of housing do you build for a single person?,” Silver says. “It’s a function of market demand.”

In Raleigh, for example, 72 percent of all residential permits the city issued in the last 12 months were for multi-family housing, he says.

“And that’s without public intervention,” he says. “That was just the market looking at where the market was.”

Urban development

Malizia says the region’s “very significant need” for affordable housing and transportation is a long-standing problem that is “certainly being exacerbated by having older households that are less affluent and less mobile.”

The “most obvious way of dealing with it is to identify strategies to increase urban development,” he says.

But that approach, known as “density,” has not worked in the region, he says.

“Most people have negative associations with density,” he says.

‘Vibrant centers’

The key to create vital places to live, Malizia says, is to generate activity and provide access.

“The more you put into the center, the more vibrant it becomes,” he says. “People who live in it or near it recognize that more is better.”

Sprawl development, however, “means onward and outward, and whatever benefits the new development generates are enjoyed by the new residents who occupy that area, but it doesn’t benefit the neighbors.”

A new subdivision simply generates more traffic and congestion for residents of adjacent subdivisions, and those existing residents see the new growth as a negative, he says.

“So more is not better,” he says. “As we have suburbanized, we have generated negative attitudes towards development because new development doesn’t not necessarily benefit existing residents.”

The key, he says, is not to avoid dense development but to do it right by creating “vibrant centers” that are cost-effective and benefit everyone by providing and making accessible to them all the services and activities they they need to live, work and play.

“People hate density in the U.S. because we’ve done it badly,” he says.

Accessible and affordable

Because planning has become so “participatory,” with government making decisions that increasingly reflect public input, Malizia says, “we empower people who hate development and growth to be major players in the planning process.”

Many people who participate in that public process tend to live in neighborhoods that are “organized and run by affluent, educated people,” he says. “They know how politics works. You have a formidable opposition for any project they don’t like, and it’s hard to find a project they like.”

Still, he says, “compact, mixed-use, urban-type development that’s located near bus lines turns out to make a lot more sense from a tax-revenue, government-expenditure standpoint than more suburban low-density sprawl.”

So as “local governments become more and more financially challenged,”  development should be designed to provide “more accessible, more affordable housing,” he says.

“Transit-oriented vibrant centers,” he says, “concentrate development, allow more open space, and represent an economically and fiscally sound land-use strategy.”

Based on their age and other factors, people typically have preferences for where they want to live, Malizia says.

“Shouldn’t we try to provide services or assistance,” he says, “in a way that allows people to stay in their neighborhoods?”

‘Browning of America’

By 2043, the U.S. will have no majority race, Silver says.

In Raleigh, where 53 percent of the population currently is white, the majority of the population by the 2020s likely will consist of minorities, he says.

Malizia says that while the “browning” of the population cuts across lines of age, income and education, the Triangle’s construction and service industries have attracted a lot of Latino immigrants to the region and kept them here.

‘Cultural competence’

Koonce says the region’s increasingly diverse population will place demands on nonprofits for greater “cultural competence.”

Agencies that provide social services will need to be more sensitive to the diversity and different backgrounds of constituents, better understanding the family structures and other issues important to different cultural groups, particularly immigrants, he says.

So nonprofits will need to train their staffs to be “competent in dealing with those different cultures,” he says.

In making decisions about which organizations to fund, particularly in the areas of education and youth services, he says, one factor United Way considers is excellence in the organization’s cultural competence.

Labor force

With the Baby Bust generation following in the wake of the Baby Boom generation, Silver says, experts are predicting a shortage in the labor force.

That is a trend in many countries, he says, with the median age increasing.

Options for addressing the looming workforce shortage include people working longer, an increase in immigration to fill jobs, and handling more manufacturing and service jobs through automation, Silver says.

“I believe immigration will play a major role,” he says.


“Smart cities know their sense of urgency 10 years before it’s urgent, and in Raleigh and the Triangle, we’re trying to be smart,” Silver says.

“I believe planners, nonprofits and policymakers need to understand emerging trends the way stockbrokers watch the market,” he says. “I want to know what’s coming so I can share it with elected officials, the public and business so we can be prepared.”

One response

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking article for all involved with providing human services of any kind. Thank you for providing this.

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