The Impending Storm

Changing Demographics and Wisconsin's Economic Future

March 2014


The impending retirement of the baby-boom generation will have significant effects on Wisconsin’s economy over the next 30 years. As this large cohort retires, the size of Wisconsin’s workforce will stall; the working-age population is expected to decline 0.2% between 2010 and 2040. Only 21 of the state’s 72 counties are expected to see increases in residents ages 20 to 64, and only six will see increases of more than 10%. Working-age populations are expected to drop more than 10% in 13 northern counties.

“No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.”
—Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw
Many aspects of government and the economy—tax collections and stock prices, for example—are difficult to predict. But future school enrollments and workforce numbers are not. Metaphorically, today’s babies are tomorrow’s students and next week’s working men and women.
As the saying goes, demography is destiny. Population trends that have been building for decades are now “coming home.” Wisconsin is undergoing a major demographic shift that will adversely impact employers, taxpayers, government revenues, and the state economy’s capacity to grow.
The seeds were sown in the years after World War II, when returning GIs married, had children, built houses, and bought all that went with them—furniture, appliances, automobiles, and remodeling. As the nation’s population surged, so did the American economy.
Over the next six decades, the demographic tidal wave of maturing “baby boomers” inundated almost everything in its path, leaving new mores and lifestyles, new political and societal institutions, and new technologies and wealth.
Now, as these boomers begin to retire, their oversized generation’s impact will again be felt—but in a new and less positive way. As growth in the workforce stalls, job growth will slow as well. It is difficult to create jobs when there are no people to fill them. It is also difficult to fund public services if employment and tax revenues are not growing.