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Population study shows growing retirement population, shrinking youth population in the Northwoods


Several Northwoods counties caught people who study population trends by surprise when the 2020 census data was release.

They expected population declines in rural counties, but nine counties in Wisconsin bucked that trend.

The 2000 to 2010 Census data showed rural counties in Wisconsin lose just under 1% of their populations.

Many analysts expected that decline to continue in the next census, but the opposite happened.

Rural county populations grew by about 1.6%.

That growth was driven mainly by nine counties in northern Wisconsin including Vilas, Oneida, Iron, and Florence Counties.

Dale Knapp is the Director of Forward Analytics. Forward Analytics is the research arm of the Wisconsin Counties association. The group recently released a report looking at the 2020 Census data and what it means for Wisconsin Counties.

The growth is from people moving to these counties.

Knapp says while remote workers living up here during the pandemic likely played a role, it was a small one.

“More likely, we think that over the decade, the early baby boomers have been retiring over the last 10 years. We think that there’s a good chance there was a significant number of those people retiring to their vacation homes in Northern Wisconsin or to a vacation home that they purchased,” said Knapp.

While the retiree population in the Northwoods grew, the youth population didn’t.

The state’s under-18 population dropped 4.3% between 2010 and 2020.

Rural counties saw the biggest losses. Lincoln County had the greatest decline with the under-18 population dropping 14.3%.

On top of that, 29 rural counties saw more deaths than births in the last decade.

This combination is bad news for employers already struggling with a thin workforce.

“That spells a lot of trouble for your workforce going forward, jobs, etc. It feeds down then into tax base, and public services. It puts a lot of stress in a lot of areas in the long term, so we’re seeing this growth that superficially looks healthy but when you dig down underneath there’s still a lot of challenges,” said Knapp.

Knapp says once places start on these declines, it’s hard to reverse it.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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