Utah’s top demographer has retired. Here is where she sees this booming state headed.

Challenges and opportunities abound as Utah approaches the 5.5 million mark in 2060, but changes will be needed to counter inequities and make this growth sustainable.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City covered in fresh snow on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Pam Perlich, a retiring demographer, calls Utah's future "much more multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious" as the state continues to mushroom.

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When the fateful numbers came into focus, old Utah was gone.

Experts studying the state’s population trends had seen initial signs through the 1990s, but the 2000 U.S. census made a series of transforming truths undeniable: The Beehive State — distinguished for generations as white, homogenous and sparsely populated with homegrown Latter-day Saint families — was rapidly becoming something very different, shaped by migration.

Salt Lake City had become an international gateway, akin to New York or Chicago in prior eras, and the state’s relative economic success at creating jobs brought a global influx of immigrants. Half the previous decade’s population growth had come from abroad, the 2000 numbers clearly showed, pushing the state closer to 2 million people at the time and making it far more diverse than ever.

As a lone population analyst for what was then the state Bureau of Economic and Business Research, Pam Perlich remembers thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Pam Perlich

“The future was not what was in the rearview mirror,” she said in a recent interview, reflecting on nearly 35 years as one of Utah’s leading demographers. Reams of new data showed that instead of “white man, white woman, three or four of five white kids and the Xerox machine,” she said, “suddenly our future was much more multilingual, multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious.”

Perhaps more crucially, the pace of those tectonic changes caught most Utahns unprepared: “The institutions that were so firmly in charge and entrenched in the state were really based on a reality that was already passed,” Perlich said, “and not really focused on the new Utah.”

Decoding, understanding and explaining that profound shift and all it would entail to often-disbelieving state residents and political leaders eventually would shape Perlich’s career as Utah’s chief demographic expert for years.

With a unique multidisciplinary approach, the former Tulsa, Okla., resident trained as an economist would devote the ensuing two decades to research, analysis, data modeling and essentially telling that story of transforming change.

Perlich retired in late December from her post as director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, capping 35 years of service in government and academia, though she’ll remain a senior adviser. First hired under then-Gov. Norm Bangerter in 1992, she has been crucial in building out the state’s robust expertise in projecting its economic and population future.

Her work has illuminated declining birthrates, shrinking family sizes, stark urban-rural differences and trends toward an aging population. She has added rich detail to the continued influence of newcomers from around the world as they settle, have children and build distinct cultural enclaves in Utah that are often overlooked in broad-brushed takes on population data.

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Salt Lake City-based Gardner Institute and a longtime Perlich colleague, praised her “extraordinary service” to the state and its flagship university.

“Pam’s considerable research, policy and communication skills defined what many call the ‘New Utah,’” Gochnour said. “In doing so, she inspired students, other researchers, and community leaders to honor and serve the rich diversity of current Utahns and prepare for future generations of Utahns.”

The state’s future hinges on more growth and more change. Judging from projections, it will reach 5.5 million sometime around 2060, with more than half its growth drawn from in-migration.

Now, as Perlich steps away from decades of data-crunching and public service, The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed her on what is in store for an ever-evolving Utah.

Here are excerpts from that discussion:

Utah’s stellar population growth drew from two key components for decades: baby-making and in-migration. Can you help us understand how we’ll get to 5.5 million residents by 2060, through that lens?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Natalie Gochnour, right, director of the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, is joined by Pam Perlich, director of demographic research, in 2017.

What we would call the old Utah — the imprint of the Mormon culture regionally — has historically led to this very high birthrate: youngest age at first marriage, highest household sizes, highest fertility rate and a lot of children per capita compared to any other state.

What that also means is fewer elders per capita compared to other states and internal growth, as in, more births than deaths. Because you’ve got a young population, there’s a higher probability of young people having babies and a lower probability of dying. And the rates that people were having babies was very, very high — well above replacement.

I hearken back to my 1986 arrival in Utah. That was right after the 1980-81 baby boom and I was stunned at the number of double and triple strollers, the size of the candy aisles. That was all very much in play.

Fast forward to now, and people are marrying later, if at all, having children later, if at all. Utah’s fertility rate is no longer the highest in the nation, and it’s below replacement. Growth in population is more and more driven by new people moving here, from all over the world. And that’s an infusion of youth. Research shows migrants are predominantly young adults, who bring dynamism and energy and new ideas and, oh boy, by the way, children.

So we’ve had those dual streams fueling the youthfulness and growth of our population. As the national and international fertility rate decline — it’s a huge global trend — more and more of the population growth is coming from new people who are moving here, who are more diverse, generally speaking, than the people who were born here — and that’s cumulative over time.

Our [2016] study “Migrant Today, Parent Tomorrow” showed that, as we went from 2 million to 3 million people in Utah, half of that growth — half a million people — are either people who moved here or the children they’ve had since they’ve been here. So it’s a compounding effect.

The other really significant thing, over time, is the aging of the population. You’ve got more old folks here, living longer, and we are a retirement destination. It’s not just Washington County. You see it in the data, in places like Cache County now: retirement migrants. There are many reason why people migrate, be it economic and educational opportunities or quality of life or coming to the heart of the Mormon culture.

Remembering back to 1986, there was still that view I’d hear: “Mormons are a bit quirky, not an asset but a liability.” Compare that to now, where people are like, “This culture is bedrock for a really terrific place.”

In those early days, we always used to love to go to the parks on Sundays — because nobody was there. Everybody was in church. And if you look especially at Salt Lake City today, it’s changed and become less and less LDS. New cultures have come in, and now we see something like 100 or 150, 160 different languages spoken in the school system and how those populations have settled on the west side of Salt Lake and in West Valley City.

You’ve argued for the importance of studying Utah’s demographic trends on a granular scale, in terms of enclaves and neighborhoods around the state. What can these population pockets tell us?

You have no idea just looking at state averages of the incredible diversity of ways to live and construct communities and the values within those communities such as language, culture, religion or no religion.

Yes, there is the comfort of just living next to people who share my values, but there is absolutely no way that you can understand the changes that are occurring in future without that neighborhood granularity. People are blown out of datasets because of their small numbers, but so much understanding of what people experience in their lives and how they creatively solve problems in a grassroots way is at that granular level.

We look at aggregate measures of economic growth and they’re really high in Utah. All these statewide comparisons, we always look pretty stellar, and there’s pride in that, in that we’ve been able to create jobs and a healthy economy.

Well, not everywhere in Utah. Not everybody is experiencing that.

To not dive into how it is playing out for different communities, different generations, neighborhoods and cultures is to misunderstand and misconstrue the reality of people’s lives. I like to remind people, nobody has ever met a median or talked to an average. It can really, really mislead you as to what is going on because it’s a mathematical construct.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An aerial photo of North Salt Lake in 2018. Utah's population will reach 5.5 million sometime around 2060, with more than half its growth drawn from in-migration.

There are so many times over the years people would say, “Well, who’s the average Utahn?” And that just makes my skin crawl, because that’s not the point. The point is, that this great cultural and ethnic and religious tapestry that is our nation, that is our community. That is Utah. That is the beauty and the strength of it — is that diversity.

The challenge is to see that and understand those different communities, the needs and opportunities that people have or don’t have, even something as basic as health care or clean water. Look at the work of health departments in the pandemic around social determinants of health, or the access to food and food deserts. You’ve got to understand, here’s where we live life.

We need to interrogate our principles in profound ways and do it within communities, to step outside of the comfort zone of our normal lives and find ways to build social spaces, meaningful community institutions, where people have the opportunity to meet and live and work with, get to know people and draw from some of these deep reservoirs of cultural knowledge and wisdom.

I don’t know know how you do that, when people have themselves so busy doing I don’t know what that they can’t slow down and have a basic conversation with people and hear and listen humbly and learn.

Your work shows how Utah and other Western states were reshaped within 30 years from rural, sparsely populated areas with natural-resource economies to these more urbanized and diverse international gateways. Could you talk about that in the context of sustainability?

It’s happened so quickly. If you look at satellite imagery of the extent of the urban area, it’s just so stark — look at Wasatch County, Tooele County, all the other ring counties that are also absorbing this very rapid growth.

And it’s not just that the geographic footprint is becoming larger and larger, but it’s also infill development and densification.

Years ago, it was like, “Oh, you’ll never see multifamily housing in Utah County.” Well, really? Look at Spanish Fork now. All that densification of population has been so striking to live through, to see what used to be places to run your dogs or take a hike or own horse property — that’s all urban infill now.

The centralization of economic activity really solidified Salt Lake County as the absolute economic heart and heartbeat of the state. And as we’ve expanded, that’s just become more and more the case. And then there are populations that are supported by that across an ever-expanding geographic area and you can see Utah County and Salt Lake County kind of merging in all this development.

With [1993-2003] growth challenges under the [Gov. Mike] Leavitt administration, we were like, “Wow, this place is growing. We need to get on top of this and manage it.” And you hear the same sorts of voices now.

Instead of just letting development happen to us and leaving those decisions totally to the private sector, let’s have a more regional perspective. Let’s acknowledge the fragility of the environment, the place we live, the finite nature of the resources we’re consuming and the implications of not being attendant to the stewardship that we need to have in this very special, fragile, high desert area.

The evidence is all around us, physical manifestations of human impact on this place — the canyons, the crowding and all of that. If we continue to grow using the same practices and policies, it is not sustainable in Utah. Our leaders and everyday people are becoming more engaged in asking: What can we do to preserve this place and reverse some of the damage that’s already been inflicted?

Utah has long ranked high for economic opportunity compared to other U.S. states, but elected leaders are also starting to acknowledge some of its deep economic inequities. What do you see in the state’s future in this regard?

Inequality has become more accentuated. That’s indisputable, and it’s happening in Utah. The housing issue has brought this into very stark relief for people, when they see their kids and grandkids are not going to be able to afford to live in their neighborhoods. It’s just been mind-blowing and really accentuated by the pandemic, as the pandemic has done with so many things, right?

We, of course, have many other cultures joining in, but Utah is the heart of the Mormon cultural region. The foundation and bedrock of Utah’s institutional infrastructure were designed by that culture. In that culture, we know that self-reliance and enterprise and individualism are all major themes. So are market forces.

But all the religions I know of are based on compassion and caring and community. Also foundational to Mormon culture are ethics on the value of education, literacy, a belief in knowledge, communitarianism and some sense of generational justice. Those can often lead to outcomes here that might not otherwise be possible in other places. We’ve seen excellent examples of that over time.

I choose to be a person who sees the glass half full. I might be traveling for a while, but I’m in Utah. A lot of my belief in the place is that these better impulses and values will predominate into the future, that people will take some pretty swift, important and consequential actions to mitigate the harm that we are doing to our infrastructures of opportunity.

Not that it will be easy and there will continue to be conflict, but I’m hopeful that we won’t run from these challenges, but will recognize them and resolve as a community to address inequality.