A glimpse of 2050: Population, employment examined

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Dave Bretl | March 31, 2014
"By 2050..the share of service-related employees will stand at 55 percent of the total workforce."

Sometime between 1400 and 1600, according to scientist and author Jared Diamond, someone chopped down the last tree on Easter Island. The 63-square-mile island, best known for its giant stone statues, had been covered with trees when settlers first arrived there sometime in the first millennium. The island's remote location, more than 1,200 miles from the nearest civilization, made its complete deforestation particularly unfortunate. In addition to providing fuel and shelter, trees were a critical part of islanders' food supply, providing habitat for numerous species of birds. Most importantly, trees represented the only way off the island; without a source of wood with which to build ocean-going canoes, its inhabitants were stuck in the world they had created. By the time the first Europeans arrived in 1722, the island's native population had plunged from 15,000 to less than 3,000. Given the importance of trees and the calamity that resulted from their extinction, one of my favorite parts of Diamond's book “Collapse” is when he speculates what could have been going through the mind of the person as they cut down the last one.

I sometimes think about Easter Island when the topic of long-range planning comes up. Like the island's inhabitants, we tend to be caught up in the here and now, like getting tonight's fire started or building that new canoe while ignoring less urgent, but far more important issues. Planning provides the opportunity to step back from our daily routine and look into the future to avoid potential disaster and take advantage of new opportunities. Earlier this year the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission released a report titled “The Economy and Population of the Southeastern Wisconsin Region.” The report makes predictions about the future population and economy of our region through the year 2050.

Before I place too much faith in any study, I always like to look at the author's track record. Fortunately, the folks at SEWRPC made this easy and did something I don't often see in most studies; they analyzed how accurate their past predictions have been. The last time SEWRPC looked at this issue was in 2004. Its predictions regarding population were within 2 percent of actual 2012 values. The commission was less accurate when it came to predicting employment, overestimating the number of jobs that would be available in the region by 5 percent. The major recession of 2008 likely figured into this miss. The study predicts a number of important future trends, including the following:

Slow and steady. In contrast to dramatic changes that took place in the region during the previous 35 years, SEWRPC's vision of our region's future is relatively calm. The entry of women into the workforce and the exodus of jobs and people from Milwaukee County, hallmarks of previous decades, will moderate in upcoming years. By 2050, according to the study, the percentage of women between the ages 16 and 64 who are working will remain unchanged. Waukesha County will continue to lead the region in job creation; however, all counties are expected to add jobs, including our own, which is expected to add 16,600 positions to its overall workforce.

Service industry expands. Another trend that is expected to continue is growth of the service industry. Employment in service-related jobs is expected to increase by 29 percent between now and 2050, with 172,000 new positions added. Manufacturing job opportunities will continue to decrease throughout the region, shedding nearly 30,000 positions over the next 35 years. By 2050, manufacturing will represent just 9 percent of all jobs in the region, while the share of service-related employees will stand at 55 percent of the total workforce.

We are getting older. Our region's population will age dramatically between now and 2050. If I am lucky enough to be around in 2050, I will be part of the “85 and older” crowd. This segment of the population will increase three-fold over the next 35 years. While 12 out of every 100 residents of southeastern Wisconsin are currently over the age of 65, that figure will stand at 21 of every 100 by 2050.

Not everyone accepts Diamond's explanation for the demise of Easter Island. In their book, “The Statues That Walked,” anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lippo blame a proliferation of rats, rather than overharvesting, for the deforestation that occurred there. Rather than disintegrating as a society, Hunt and Lippo argue that the population adapted by eating a diet consisting largely of rat meat. Regardless of why the trees became extinct, there is no question that people can adapt to harsh circumstances. Over a number of generations, islanders probably didn't even give a second thought to their limited menu options; it was all that they knew.

In this respect, there is a parallel to the SEWRPC report. Household income, measured in constant dollars, fell by 11 percent between 2000 and 2010. While politicians and the media focus on the number of jobs being created, the question of how much those jobs will pay is largely ignored. SEWRPC doesn't make any predictions regarding future income, which in my view, may have a more significant impact on the lives of residents of the region than any other statistic contained in the report. For now at least, it seems that people have adapted to the decline in income.

If you are interested in looking into the future, you can read the SEWRPC study yourself. It is available on the commission's website at www.sewrpc.org.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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