Where Have All the Young Girls (and Boys) Gone?

Where Have All the Young Girls (and Boys) Gone?

I’ve been taking guitar lessons at my local rec center.  And with one of the simplest chord progressions – C, Am, F, G7 – the Pete Seeger song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is pretty easy to learn.

In fact, I had been playing it the other afternoon before I discovered some really interesting maps of migration patterns in the United States based on Census figures.  These maps were created by folks at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and are based on net migration by county.  That means they look at the balance of in-migrants minus out-migrants, rather than tracking the flow of where people move when they leave.  As they explain it, the group took the data per age group at the beginning of the decade, estimated population in 10 years (accounting for rates of death), and then looked at actual numbers for the end of the decade.  The positive or negative numbers show the difference between actual and expected figures.

There are some interesting things to learn about the nation as a whole, but as a pastor in Iowa, I was also interested in what was happening in our state.  I hear a lot about how young, educated people are leaving the state in droves, and yet I know many young adults, like myself, who are still here or have returned.  In the church, we have experienced population decline in more rural areas and overall, the population of the state is not keeping pace with national growth which caused us to lose a seat in the House of Representatives this past cycle.

But what can we see when we look at patterns over time?

Net Migration 2000's
Net Migration 2000’s
Net Migration 1990's
Net Migration 1990’s
Net Migration 1980's
Net Migration 1980’s
Net Migration 1970's
Net Migration 1970’s
Net Migration 1960's
Net Migration 1960’s
Net Migration 1950's
Net Migration 1950’s

(Orange represents a loss of greater than 4.49, yellow a loss of .49-4.48, white is -.48 to a growth of 4.47, light purple 4.48-19.47, and dark purple an increase of over 19.48)

When we look at the overall patterns of net migration, we lost a lot of people from the state in the 50’s, 60’s, and 80’s.  You can even see how there was a slow down in out-migration in the 1970’s but how that all would have changed with the farm crisis in the 1980’s.  Since that time, however, we have seen growth… or at least a stemming of the tide in the east central and central parts of the states and surrounding urban areas. What surprises me is the continual decline in population along the eastern edge of the state in the counties along the Mississippi River and the somewhat lack of decline in the south central part of the state.  However, as I have driven through that are much in the past year, it is a) not a difficult drive to Des Moines and bigger cities for work and b) an area where smaller cities are thriving. The only place where we have seen extraordinary growth (a rate of over 19.48 is in Dallas County.  This would account for the huge growth in the western suburbs of Des Moines.

Net Migration – All individuals – 1950-2000’sAs we think about migration patterns among folks who Business Insider describe at their “prime earnings age” or 30-54, the picture looks much like it does above, but with more drastic changes.  Areas that are light purple are often dark purple in this age range.  Areas that are white turn purple.  In the 1950’s and 1980’s the picture flips the other way and there is much greater loss in this age range throughout the state. While we often covet young people in our churches, this age range is a source of much untapped potential.  They have regular steady incomes, workplace skills and experience that are beneficial to ministry, and are raising children.  Unfortunately, all of those things also mean they are extraordinarily busy.  To minister to this group of folks in today’s world will require us to think in new ways – in terms of time, place, and types of activities.

Age 15-29, 1950's
Age 15-29, 1950’s
Age 15-29, 1960s
Age 15-29, 1960s
Age 15-29, 1970s
Age 15-29, 1970s
Age 15-29, 1980's
Age 15-29, 1980’s
Age 15-29, 1990s
Age 15-29, 1990s
Age 15-29, 2000s
Age 15-29, 2000s

What about the patterns of migration among younger folks? The study describes a range of 15-29 years of age and this is largely the group of people we have been so concerned have been leaving our state in droves.  Largely, the patterns show a movement towards urban areas, which makes sense, when you think about the fact many of these dark purple areas are also university cities.  Because the net migration patterns are based the formula described above, it is natural for collegiate communities to consistently have positive data… their numbers are based on 5-19 year olds in the community at the beginning of the decade and then actual 15-29 year olds at the end.  It is interesting that Black Hawk county (home of University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls/Waterloo) has fluctuated between growth and decline over the past fifty years while the other two state universities have continually seen an influx of that age group. 

The two exceptions are in the data from the 1950’s when Linn County (Cedar Rapids/Marion) experienced a large growth in this age group (although there are some smaller private colleges here) and in the 2000’s when Dallas County also shows extraordinary growth in this age group.  Most striking is that Dallas County does not have a college or university!  Because the 15-29 age group is so large, you can breakdown the data into smaller chunks on the net migration website.  While Story (ISU), Johnson (UofI), and Black Hawk (UNI) counties all saw growth of young people in the past decade, their gains were largely in the range of 15-24, or college aged students.  In comparison, Dallas County experienced minimal loss in that same age range, but saw an increase of 88% in their 25-29 year olds.  That rate goes up to 182% in the 30-34 age group.  It is not surprising, that 0-5 year olds also spike in Dallas County at this time. 


Migration rates among different ethnicity groups also have implications for ministry because we have seen large growth in Hispanic, African, and Southeast Asian communities across our state. However, because of the varied ways that census data has been collected, it is harder to see the patterns of change in this particular format.  Data from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s is simply listed as “white” or “non-white,”  the 1980’s shows no distinction, and in the 1990’s and on a distinction between white, black, and hispanic is listed.

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