For a state used to growing at a torrid pace for decades, the past two years were tantamount to Colorado crashing headlong into a demographic brick wall.

In 2021, the Centennial State added 26,489 new people while last year 27,717 new folks called Colorado home. The state hasn’t seen such anemic growth since Roy Romer occupied the governor’s mansion in 1990, a year when Colorado added barely 13,000 new residents.

Compared to the decade from 2010 to 2020, when the state gained an average of 70,000 new residents a year, the plummeting number of newcomers to Colorado in 2021 and 2022 was a dramatic downward shift. And forget about trying to match the boom-boom 1990s, when Colorado regularly added more than 100,000 new people annually to its population.

The recent drop-off can be attributed to multiple factors, both long-term and unexpectedly sudden. A decline in births in Colorado over the last 15 years alongside an inexorable increase in deaths is one obvious dynamic slowing growth.

On the less predictable side of the ledger, migration fell off a cliff in 2021 from the previous year — down to less than half the nearly 29,000 who arrived in the state in 2020 — and didn’t rebound much last year. Rapidly rising home prices, if you could even find one to rent or buy, impeded growth as well.

And in the middle of it all, like a symphony conductor madly waving her baton in the air, was the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 14,600 Coloradans since March 2020.

“COVID has done a doozy,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner. “COVID had a huge impact on migration. People weren’t moving, and internationally, our borders were closed. I do think (the last two years) will be the low point in terms of population change.”

That’s because her office forecasts population growth to pick right back up, with an estimated 55,000 new residents arriving in Colorado through birth and migration in 2023. Even more will join Colorado’s ranks in the years leading up to 2030, when Colorado’s population is expected to top 6.4 million.

The state had 5,839,926 people as of July 1, 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

While growth will resume a more aggressive pace in Colorado going forward, Garner said, it is slowing in the big picture. The ravages of the pandemic are fading but the state’s population is rapidly aging — and dying — regardless. Those 65 and older are the state’s fastest-growing cohort and Colorado saw its highest number of deaths ever — 49,671 — last year, several thousand of which were due to the coronavirus.

At the same time, not as many babies are being born — the peak year for births in Colorado was 2007, with 70,700. The nearly 62,000 births in Colorado in 2021 was the fewest in the state since 1999, Garner said.

All of that means that the natural increase in Colorado’s population — births minus deaths — over the last two years was the slimmest it’s been since before 1970. Thirty-eight of Colorado’s 64 counties were in a state of natural decline in 2021, the state demography office said.

Weld County is the only Front Range county continuing to see an increase in births.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see the growth we had in the 90s — or even in the last decade — ever again,” Garner said.

Worker woes, affordability

While the days of six-figure annual increases in population may be over, Colorado isn’t ready to shrink. Nineteen states last year lost population — including California, New York and Illinois — but Colorado still edged out the nation’s near-record low growth rate of 0.4% last year.

Colorado’s future growth won’t be evenly distributed across the state. The largest hike is forecast to be on the Front Range, which will get 88% of the state’s 632,000 new people between 2020 and 2030, according to the demography office. Metro Denver will get 300,000 of that.

By 2050, metro Denver’s population is expected to surge to 4.4 million from 3.3 million today.

Emily Paxton, 28, is one of the thousands of millennials who have made Denver home in the last few years. She came for a job in July after she found it hard to find one in her field of writing in New Orleans, where she lived for five years.

She was attracted to Colorado’s outdoor vibe and music scene, especially shows at Red Rocks.

“Everyone being outside and that healthy lifestyle,” Paxton said. “Denver was a fresh start.”

But that fresh start meant forking out nearly twice the $650 rent she was paying in New Orleans for half the space, and a roommate, in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Paxton doesn’t see buying a home in Colorado’s inflated housing market likely in the near-term future.

“Owning a home definitely feels like a far-reaching goal in life,” she said.

She’s not thinking about kids either.

“A lot of people who have gone on to pursue a higher degree are choosing to delay,” Paxton said. “I’m more career-minded at the moment.”

Housing prices in the metro area have escalated at a blistering pace — 162.4% — in the decade from 2011 to 2021. That puts a hard cap on growth potential, said Phyllis Resnick, executive director and lead economist with the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University.

“We’re getting a reputation for being too expensive to live and that’s a concern economically,” she said.

It has young people looking to more affordable cities in Idaho, New Mexico and Montana to start their careers, Resnick said. And high real estate prices put a further strain on an already tight labor market in Colorado.

That worker squeeze has been a real challenge on the Western Slope, which experienced faster growth than the Front Range in 2021, according to the demography office. The office forecasts that the 21 counties that make up the Western Slope will grow from around 600,000 residents today to nearly 800,000 by 2050.

Because there are so many second homes in the region, populations can suddenly expand, said Kaye Simonson, planning director for San Miguel County. That was never truer than during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people exited cities to work remotely from rural parts of the state.

According to the 2021 Mountain Migration Report, the town of Telluride’s population of 4,150 people doubled almost overnight during the fall of 2020, as the 50% of homes that typically sit empty — mostly vacation dwellings — were suddenly occupied by remote workers.

“They’re coming in with more financial means than our local workers, and that has an impact on our housing,” Simonson said.

Long a problem for mountain resort towns like Telluride, housing service workers only worsened during the pandemic. The Mountain Migration Report concluded that 2021 home prices reached record highs in the six mountain counties it focused on while rents jumped 20% to 40%.

“Newcomers with significantly higher incomes than year-round residents more often won the competition for scarce housing units,” the report said.

That pushed local employees who work in Telluride, where homes are priced above $1 million, to outlying places like Norwood, Naturita, Nucla and Dolores. Simonson calls Montrose, which is 90 minutes away from Telluride, the tony ski town’s “housing relief valve.”

Meanwhile, The Telluride Daily Planet is running four pages of Help Wanted ads, she said.

“It’s a great place to live and more people want to live here — and they’re coming,” Simonson said.

Workforce amidst aging population

Colorado’s labor force challenges will only be further exacerbated by the state’s fast-growing senior population. The demography office projects 200,000 retirements in the state over the next five years — people who used to drive trucks, teach schoolchildren or provide nursing care.

“These aren’t industries that are easily mechanized,” demographer Garner said. “They need bodies.”

But there’s no guarantee those bodies will continue coming to Colorado, especially if home prices remain out of reach. If the changes to work habits wrought by the pandemic — “the COVID hangover” — stick around, Resnick with the Colorado Futures Center said, it could be tough to lure workers to a relatively expensive state like Colorado.

“What remains to be seen is how much of COVID distortion is a lasting distortion,” she said.

Resnick wonders if there are enough workers to replace the older generation in Colorado. While in 1990 more than one in four Coloradans was under 18 and only one in 10 was older than 65, by 2050, seniors will account for 21% of the state’s population while the youngest cohort will drop to 18.3%.

And if retirees continue to age in place, when will the state’s housing crunch abate?

“I think there’s a lot of housing that gets freed up in the next 10 to 15 years when that generation decides what their next move is,” Resnick said. “We have an older generation who may decide they don’t want to do the winter.”

Nikki Crouse, senior services manager for Broomfield, said there are 10,500 residents over the age of 65 — or about 14% of Broomfield’s population. And they have their own distinct needs in an environment where “the demand for housing is far greater than the supply.”

“We do see the challenges of financial insecurity, often directly correlated with housing costs, leading to an avalanche of issues regarding transportation, mental and physical health, employment, and services needed as a real concern and the ramifications will continue to play out in the next decade as the population increases and funding streams are depleted,” she said

She said seniors in Broomfield often find themselves trying to decide “whether they pay their rent or take their medication.”

“If the labor issues continue, there is a real possibility that prices for services will be out of reach for many older adults,” Crouse said. “This also taps into our community’s ability to provide affordable housing and family-friendly services in order to attract the workforce we need.”

If Colorado can’t buttress its labor force via domestic migration, it will have to look overseas for future workers. Last year, net international migration increased in Colorado to 10,366, a significant jump from 2021’s gain of 3,914. Net domestic migration held steady, with 5,300 newcomers in 2022 and 5,600 the year before.

It’s expected that two-thirds of Colorado’s growth going forward will come from people moving here versus natural increase. But just how many will cross the state line is difficult to ascertain, Garner said, especially as international migration is subject to changing border and visa policies at the federal level.

Among all the talk of future growth in Colorado, Resnick raises the question that is on many Coloradans’ minds. What if it doesn’t happen? What if Colorado simply stops expanding? What if the state doesn’t reach the 7.48 million residents demographers project will be here by 2050?

Water shortages, environmental degradation, traffic congestion, air quality issues, and encroachment on wildlife habitats are all problems exacerbated by an increase in the human population. But in a nation where the ability to be mobile is a sacrosanct right, can growth be stopped? Can it be managed in a way where it does more good than harm?

“I’m not convinced that endless growth is the only way to have a vibrant and sustainable economy,” Resnick said. “It’s possible to love a place to death.”

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