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Rural America is growing older faster than urban America

For the first time, more than one in five rural Americans is over the age of 65, said the Agriculture Department on Tuesday, and rural America is aging more rapidly than the rest of the country. The rural workforce is shrinking in number but becoming more racially diverse.

“The aging of the baby-boom generation…will continue to contribute to the loss of working-age adults through the end of this decade,” said the annual Rural America at a Glance report. Some 46.1 million people, or 14% of the U.S. population, lived in rural counties in 2021, spread across 72% of the nation’s land mass.

For decades, rural residents have tended to be older than urbanites because of the long-standing pattern of young people moving to the city to look for jobs and older people retiring to the country. The gap widened in recent years, when the metro population grew and rural areas held steady or declined.

“In 2021, people 65 years and older made up over 20% of the nonmetro population for the first time, compared to 16% of the metro population,” said the USDA report. “Corresponding declines in the relative size of the working-age population (18-64 years) were also higher in nonmetro areas. In 2021, 58% of nonmetro residents were 18-64 years old, compared with 61% of metro residents.”

Rural areas have become more diverse economically, with more workers in health care, hospitality and other service industries. Since 2001, employment has declined in agriculture, retail and manufacturing. The number of government jobs was stable. Increased productivity was a major factor in the loss of agriculture and manufacturing jobs.

“Declines in the working-age population may make it hard to meet labor demands in some rural industries and local labor markets,” said the USDA. “At the same time, many rural areas lack sufficient health care capacity, broadband service, community centers and other services to address the challenges associated with an aging population.”

The four largest industries by rural employment were government, manufacturing, retail, and health care and social assistance. They had a combined workforce of 11.2 million out of the 23.6 million jobs in rural America. “The strongest rural job gains from 2011 to 2019 were mostly in smaller industries,” such as real estate and leasing, said the USDA. The share of college-educated workers rose to 23.8% in 2019.

“The rural workforce has also become more diverse,” said the report. Whites hold 81% of the jobs, compared to the metro average of nearly 60%. “Hispanic labor force growth has been consistently high for the past four decades and in 2019, made up 8.3% of the nonmetro labor force. Similar to Hispanics, the nonmetro share of workers who were Black or African American in 2019 (7.2%) was roughly half of the share seen in metro areas.”

To read Rural America at a Glance, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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