This summer, California’s population finally surpasses 40 million.
We should celebrate by reflecting on just how small we are.
Of course, we won’t. California, like an insecure male lover, is always bragging about how big it is. And so crossing the 40-million threshold—by state figures, it’s likely to happen in late summer—will occasion another round of boasting about our size, not merely in population but in economic output and cultural impact. The moment will also produce new predictions about how soon we’ll get to 50 million or 100 million.
But such projections, while fun to contemplate, are unlikely to match reality. To the contrary, California should consider the real possibility that population shrinkage may be in our future.
Trends that have produced population decline in other places are strong here. California’s birth rate is at a record low. We’re losing more people to other states each year than come back to us. And international immigration remains low—and could fall further given the federal government’s mass deportation.
Our state’s own policies—especially underinvestment in schools, infrastructure and housing—all discourage family creation and add to the high cost of living that drives people away. The result is a rapidly aging California population that will consume and innovate less (most new things are invented by the young), weakening the economy and reducing the number of jobs.
California’s population growth is already at record lows—less than 0.8 percent annually—and falling. During the heyday of immigration, in the 1980s, annual population growth was 2.5 percent a year. Indeed, with many other states growing faster than the Golden State, in 2022 California could lose a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time ever.
California would hardly be alone if its population started to decline. Illinois and Pennsylvania have seen their populations drop in recent years. And the most recent population report from the United Nations says 51 countries are expected to see population decreases between now and 2050, including countries that inspire our state’s social policies, like Germany and Japan.
Despite the warning signs, the prospect of population loss hasn’t penetrated the California mind. To the contrary, we remain devoted to the great California pastime of overestimating our own population growth. Gov. Jerry Brown has talked about the inevitability, and environmental threat, of a 50 million-person California that will require us “to find a more elegant way of relating to material things.”
But for two decades, California number crunchers have been quietly ratcheting down population estimates. As recently as the mid-1990s, the state and federal governments’ official predictions showed California reaching 50 million people by 2020, a year when our real population likely will be fewer than 41 million.
And if we never get much beyond 40 million, will it be a mortal wound to our pride? After all, the United States had almost exactly that population way back in 1872, when the newspaper man Horace Greeley, famous for the advice “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” ran for president, lost, and promptly dropped dead.
Today’s 40-million-person California, for all its delusions of grandeur, has less than one-eighth the population of the United States, less than one-third the population of Mexico, and not even 1/35th the population of China. If California were a country, we would rank just 35th, behind Ukraine, Uganda, Argentina, Colombia, Tanzania, and Myanmar.
This California, of 40 million, faces a choice. Either accept that we’re a small place that’s likely to become smaller, at least compared to a fast-growing world. Or think more seriously about how to attract more people here, and do a better job of nurturing and retaining the young people we have here now.
If we’re as big as we think we are, this is no time to think small.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.