Six fundamental ways Utah has changed — and what leaders should do about it

The “New Utah” is here, says the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute - bigger, more diverse and poised to level up on its economy.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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After decades of transformative growth, a new Utah is here — larger, older, more multicultural and boasting an “elite” economy among U.S. states, though with growing risks from unaffordable housing.

Another vast change: Most of the new Utah’s population growth is now adults moving in from other places, ending generations of those gains being driven by a renowned high birth rate and resident families having kids.

These six big demographic and economic shifts — outlined in a report called “The New Utah: Keepers of the Flame” by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute — have not only reshaped the Beehive State into something new and here to stay, they pose a challenge to government.

The 50-page analysis offers a graphic and data-driven guide to state leaders on how to deal with these tectonic changes, many of which were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s brought Utah to an inflection point, three of Gardner’s top researchers say.

“Something’s different. The ground has shifted,” said Natalie Gochnour, the institute’s director, at a roundtable discussion Monday. “We indeed face a new economic and demographic environment.”

Gochnour said the shift demanded “bold action” and for “state and local government to be more effective, responsive, speedy, and innovative to keep Utah thriving.”

The report concludes that the state can handle ongoing growth well and “ascend to a new level of prosperity and continue to be a true land of opportunity.” Or leaders can handle it poorly, leading future Utahns to possibly experience “compromised livability, less upward mobility and potentially lower standards of living.”

The data-rich mongram recommends the state’s leaders — as “keepers of the flame” in terms of Utah’s legacy — have open minds, listen, invest money, fortify institutions and dignify and unify residents.

Here’s an in-depth look at the six changes:

More populous

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fresh snow on homes in Herriman, Dec. 8, 2022. After decades of steady growth, Utah is a mid-sized state, with new opportunities and challenges.

Utah was consistently among the 10 smallest states for decades before it jumped to 38th in 1950. It has consistently grown since and is now considered a mid-size state.

Between 2010 and 2020, the state’s population grew by 18.4% — the most of any state.

“Population growth in Utah is not new,” the report reads. “What is new is a critical mass of people creating new opportunities and also bumping up against various constraints.”

Utah is expected to keep growing, surpassing Connecticut’s population by 2030 and 4 million people by 2032. The state’s future peers will be those like Oregon and Colorado instead of New Mexico and Idaho.

Growth can bring opportunities, the report reads, but can contribute to issues with transportation congestion, water availability, crime, and more if poorly managed.

More movers, fewer births

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Newcomers join natives in Helper, Carbon County, for a monthly Main Street gallery stroll as the small town gradually reinvents itself as a tourist destination. Utah's population growth is now dominated by adults moving in as opposed to in-state births, after decades of decline fertility rates.

While births caused 66% of Utah’s growth from 2000 to 2020, natural increase was just 39% of the state’s growth in 2021 and 2022. Net migration is now the state’s primary population driver.

Utah has had more people move here than move away for 31 of the past 32 years, and net migration has exceeded 22,000 each year since 2015.

In contrast, Utah’s fertility rate has declined or held steady for 14 consecutive years.

Movers change Utah’s demographics, the report reads, including age, fertility patterns, diversity, languages spoken at home, consumer preferences and religious makeup.

Most people move here for a job, the report adds, and projections indicate the state’s “high-octane economy will continue to fuel employment-related migration.”

Roughly 17% of these migrants have come from California, followed by Texas at 7.2% and Idaho, at 6.6%.

More notably, an astonishing 26.9% of those who moved to Utah in 2021 were originally born here, the highest ratio by far among all U.S. states with only California even close, in second place at 15.9%, and all other states with single-digit percentages.

“It’s super interesting in our state,” Gochnour said, “that we want our children and grandchildren to grow up here. Many Utah households feel that way. And in fact that we do see that people go away and come back.”


(Tribune file photo) A decathlon at Magna-Kenecott Senior Center. Seniors over 65 make up a larger share of Utah's population than ever before.

Utah’s population continues to age as fertility rates remain low and existing residents age. The state’s median age steadily increased from 24.2 in 1980 to 31.3 in 2020.

The report’s authors expect that trend to continue, with projections calling for the 65 and older population to increase from about 11% today to 20% by 2050.

Within 30 years, one in five Utahns will be over 65, said Jennifer Robinson, chief of staff at the institute.

And an aging populace, said Robinson, will have deep and widespread impacts on the economy, government services, tax revenues and consumer preferences — as well as tight labor markets, housing, healthcare and transportation.

More diverse

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children, ages 7 to 14, perform the Oath of Allegiance at Discovery Gateway in Salt Lake City, August 7, 2017. Utah is more multicultural and racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

Just shy of one in four Utahns identified themselves a racial or ethnic minority in 2022 -- up from less than one in 10 in 1990. In the next decades, that will grow to one in three Utahns.

The Beehive State is already more diverse than Indiana, Nebraska, Missouri, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and has the same racial and ethnic diversity of Pennsylvania.

For those growing up in Utah, Robinson said, “it’s really, really surprising.”

With Beehive State residents less homogeneous, state leaders must serve a more diverse set of population needs, the report says.

“Language, household composition, consumer preferences ranging from food, entertainment, and housing, health care delivery, and educational attainment change with a more diverse population,” the report adds.

Transition to an ‘elite’ economy

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Biotechnology firm Recursion Pharmaceuticals at its headquarters at The Gateway in Salt Lake City. Utah's sustained job growth has transformed into one of the nation's elite economies.

Utah’s economy has become elite, the authors write, noting they don’t use the word lightly.

Utah has one of the most diverse economies in the nation and has the “secret sauce” of social capital, they add.

The state’s economy has “consistently outperformed other states” since 2011 and was stronger than other states during and coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, the report reads.

Having an elite economy creates opportunities for Utahns to thrive and helps governments pay for current needs and make future investments, the report says.

It also likely will lead to technological advancements and higher costs, the experts write. They explain costs rise as economies grow because decision-makers implement less expensive options first — such as developing the most accessible land for building new homes and picking cheaper options to address Interstate 15 congestion.

Unaffordable housing

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new subdivision takes shape in West Jordan, January 2021. With rentals and homes to buy now so unaffordable, Utah's housing costs present a major risk to its economy.

Utah’s home prices were once in line with the U.S. average but now track well above it. That massively benefits people who already owned a home but prices out younger people and many middle-class workers, the report says.

Home prices and rents have increased as the state’s housing supply has failed to keep up with demand, the report reads.

The ratio of home price to median income has gone up “dramatically,” the report adds.

“If existing trends continue, high costs will price our children and grandchildren out of home ownership,” the team from Gardner writes. “This trend portends far-reaching societal impacts that threaten to hollow out Utah’s middle class over time.”

Only six U.S. states are more expensive for housing than Utah right now, according to Phil Dean, the institute’s chief economist.

“States like New York, Virginia, these eastern states that I think of as really expensive housing markets,” Dean said, “and our home prices are now higher than those states.”

Five points of guidance

Utah’s leaders shouldn’t fight or accept change, the report says, but instead should “lead change and prosper.”

The report’s authors recommend state leaders:

  1. Have an open mind and be willing to try new policy approaches as old ways may no longer work.

  2. Listen more and hear all Utahns and their perspectives.

  3. Invest even more than the state’s historical levels of investment.

  4. Fortify foundational institutions like families, schools, churches, government, and other forms of common life.

  5. Dignify and unify. Utah should continue making social capital a competitive advantage so it doesn’t become “just another mid-sized state.”

The report ends with advice from local and national leaders, capped off by a quote former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt put in the time capsule preserved under the steps of the state Capitol.

Leavitt’s quote advises that prosperity can help care for the needy and otherwise improve life for Utahns but also can “expose a community’s soft underbelly by breeding complacency, arrogance, and social division.”

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.