California Decline: Population Likely Peaked Three Years Ago

A July projection from the state's Demographic Research Unit indicates that the population in 2060 may be about what it is today.

3 minute read

July 27, 2023, 10:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

A crowded sunny day at Santa Monica beach

A busy summer day at the beach in Santa Monica, California. | Hayk Shalunts / Adobe Stock

I can still recall as an urban planning graduate student at San José State University nearly two decades ago attending a conference series at UC Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development that was centered on the state's population growth, specifically on when the state would reach 50 million people. Would it be by 2040, or sooner?

In retrospect, how could they have gotten it so wrong? Bloomberg News reporters Alex Tanzi and Eliyahu Kamisher report on July 22 on the most recent projection released by the California Department of Finance in the source article.

More than a century of long-term population growth in California could be over, according to new projections [pdf] that show the state will have about the same number of people in 2060 as it does now.

For the last three years, the Golden State has experienced population loss for the first time since statehood in 1850, resulting in the loss of a congressional district this year. The state's population peak was noted in an aptly titled May 26, 2020 post: “California's Population Might Be Peaking:”

The Golden State grew by 87,494 residents last year, an increase of 0.2 percent from 2018, bringing the total estimated population to 39,782,870 as of January 1st, 2020, according to demographic data released by the Demographic Research Unit of the California Department of Finance. 

Three years later the population had dropped to 38,940,231 as of January 1, 2023, according to a more upbeat May 4, 2023 post, “California Growth Report: Housing Up, Population Down.”

“The department predicts that there’ll be 39.5 million people in the state by 2060,” add Bloomberg's Tanzi and Kamisher. “Just three years ago, forecasters were expecting the number to be 45 million – and a decade ago, the population was seen surging to almost 53 million.”

By comparison, Texas – the second most populous state – is projected to expand from 30 million people to 36.7 million by 2060, according to its latest forecast from 2022.

Ethan Varian, housing reporter for The Mercury News, reported on the new projection on July 26 with a focus on the Bay Area.

“You can draw a pretty straight line between places that grow in population and their economic potential,” said Jeff Bellisario, executive director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

“The effect could be biggest in regions like the County of Los Angeles, which is expected to shrink by 1.7 million people from 2020 to 2060,” add Tanzi and Kamisher.

Fox News reported on the projection on July 26, wisely noting:

Experts warn to be wary of long-term projections, noting many factors can change, and the calculations can't be full-proof. However, in the near term, at least, many signs indicate California's exodus will continue.

The state's demographic experts note in their 4-page report [pdf] that migration is among the most difficult population factors to project.

Migration is the most critical component of California’s population change and the hardest to project due to inherent variability and the absence of full administrative data. Net migration is expected to return to a range of 50,000 by the end of the decade and remain within a range of 50,000 – 60-000 throughout the forecast period.

See “California Population” for prior and future posts on California's population changes.

Hat tip to Steve Birdlebough.

Saturday, July 22, 2023 in Bloomberg News

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