North Dakota: Young and getting younger
FARGO -- Fresh out of college, Rebecca Marohn and Jessica Herd moved from their college towns to North Dakota this summer with new jobs at Microsoft in mind and some lingering doubts about living in Fargo.
But the city's sense of vitality and growth -- not to mention cheap rent and good jobs -- quickly erased their skepticism, they said.
"Opportunity is here. This is the place to start," said Herd, who moved here from her college town of Tallahassee, Fla. "That's what attracts people our age."
Marohn, 22, and Herd, 24, joined the growing ranks of young adults in North Dakota. The state has the largest proportion of 20- to 24-year-olds among the 50 states -- nearly 9.3 percent, according to an analysis of 2012 U.S. census population estimates.
And while the rest of the nation is getting older, as reflected in steady increases in nearly every state's median age over the past two years, North Dakota is getting younger. And fast.
The drop in North Dakota's median age from 37 in 2010 to 36.1 last year -- enormous in such a short window -- had census officials double- and triple-checking that it wasn't the product of a math error, state census office manager Kevin Iverson said.
Business and census experts like Iverson agree: It's yet another sign of how much the state's economy has grown, largely driven by soaring farm commodity prices and an oil boom in western North Dakota spreading benefits (and population growth) across the state.
"When you're 20, it's just easier to go where the jobs are at," Iverson said. "You've got a trunk full of stuff and you're on four wheels and you go where you need to go."
Saving North Dakota
Just 10 years ago, North Dakota's sons and daughters were leaving by the thousands, contributing to annual population losses and a grim outlook for the state.
A 2002 report from the North Dakota State Data Center pegged the out-migration of young adults as a major trend and concern. The state's population had been stagnant since the 1980s, and the report projected 1,000 20- to 24-year-olds would leave the state by 2005. By 2025, the count would climb above 6,000.
State demographers openly worried about the loss of vitality that out-migration would bring. The Forum ran an expansive series in late 2002 about the state's grim mood and outlook called "Saving North Dakota."
The reversal since then has been staggering.
In what's now the fastest-growing state in the nation, North Dakota's young adult count grew more than twice as fast as its total population between 2010 and 2012.
Of the 27,000 new North Dakotans counted between the 2010 census and the Census Bureau's estimate, nearly 6,000 were 20- to 24-year-olds. More than half of the state's population growth was from people between 20 and 34 years old, according to census data.
Iverson said his research shows that population growth isn't limited to the oilfields of the Bakken region -- it's spread across the entire state. Though the Minot area's young adult population grew the most, the Fargo area was No. 2, he said.
North Dakota has had among the largest proportion of young adults for many years. Even in those dark years back in 2000, it was second only to Utah. Washington, D.C., has consistently topped the list with between 9 and 10 percent of its population made up of 20- to 24-year-olds.
Michael Ziesch, a manager in the Labor Market Information Center at Job Service North Dakota, said they've seen the growth of the state's young adult population in many industries, particularly mining, construction, retail and hospitality.
"In terms of opportunity, it's really a young job-seekers market," Ziesch said.
'Chicken or egg'
Take North Dakota's status as the state with the largest proportion of 20- to 24-year-olds and mix in its low unemployment rate for young adults, cheap rent prices and lots of bars per capita. For Richard Barrington, spokesman and personal finance expert for MoneyRates.com, that was a recipe to make North Dakota the No. 1 state for young adults.
Barrington said he would have been surprised to see North Dakota on top if he hadn't been following the state's booming economy for years.
"Right now, there are a lot of places where it's very hard to get a job," he said. "For a young person trying to get a start in life, it's very important to look in the right places."
A similar study from the Opportunity Nation coalition, which ranked states based on their support for young adults, put North Dakota at No. 3, behind Vermont and Minnesota. The Opportunity Nation report weighed a number of different factors, including college graduation rates, income equality and violent crime rates.
Megan Priebe wasn't expecting to be wowed by Fargo's shopping options and restaurants when she moved here to take a job in January.
"I think that the Fargo area is very welcoming to the 20- to 24-year olds," said Priebe, who recently turned 24.
After graduating in May 2012 from the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minn., with a bachelor's degree in management, she hunted for jobs in the Twin Cities area for eight fruitless months.
"That didn't work out because they're not hiring," she said. "And Fargo is hiring."
Broadening her search quickly landed her a job with Sanford Health, where she works as a human resources representative.
Barrington said he thought there was "a little bit of a chicken and egg thing going on" in North Dakota. Has the state's economy and amenities for Priebe and other young adults driven that population growth? Or has the increase in 20- to 24-year-olds led to more bars, nightclubs and gyms and better Internet service?
Probably some of both, he said.
"A state with a lot of young people in it is going to tend to be more dynamic," Barrington said. "As that youthful population starts to come in, you start to see a ripple effect."
For Iverson, there was no doubt what's behind the influx of young adults in North Dakota, whether they moved here, like Ram, or turned 20 and stayed.
"This is driven by our economy," he said.