Those of us who follow demographic data spend a lot of time talking about how we’re getting older as a nation, why that’s bad for the economy, and how communities that want to prosper need to attract more young adults – which is often easier said than done since there are fewer of them and lots of other localities trying to do the same thing.
There’s scarcely an economic development meeting I’ve attended in this part of Virginia where, at some point, that isn’t a topic of conversation, either directly or indirectly.
Now comes some new Census Bureau data that shows us anew just how old some of our localities are becoming – but also just how young a few exceptional communities are. Surprise: This side of the state has both the oldest communities in Virginia – and also the youngest.
Let’s walk through the data.
Age before beauty, as they say, so let’s look at the older end of the age data first.
Only one state is getting younger, the Census Bureau tells us. That state is Maine, but the youth trend there is relative. Maine remains the oldest state in the nation but did see its median age decline slightly from 44.8 in 2020 to 44.7 in 2021.
The youngest state is Utah, with a median age of 31.8. The national median is 38.8, up from 38.5. Virginia’s is also 38.8, right at the national median.
Across virtually all – key qualifier! – of Southwest and Southside, the median age is not only higher than the national median, it’s often much higher, with median ages typically higher than 40 years old and sometimes higher than 45 years old.
West of the New River, median ages range from 41.6 in Wise County to 49.2 in Grayson County.
Across the state’s southern border, between the Blue Ridge and Interstate 85, median ages range from 40.9 in Danville to 50.4 in Patrick County.
These aren’t even the oldest places in the state, though.
Here are the Virginia localities with the 10 oldest median ages:
1. Highland County 59.3
2. Northumberland County 58.2
3. Lancaster County 57.9
4. Middlesex County 55.4
5. Mathews County 54.3
6. Charles City County 52.7
7. Bath County 52.6
8. Rappahannock County 52.0
9. Northampton County 51.6
10. Nelson County 51.2
You’ll see that list is heavy with localities along the Chesapeake Bay which a) are rural to start with, and rural areas tend to be older, and b) are now becoming retirement havens, which further helps make them older. Take this for what it’s worth: No locality in Southwest Virginia makes the state’s Top 10 oldest counties list, although some do if we look at the next 16:
- Surry County 51.0
- Patrick County 50.9
- Rockbridge County 49.5
- Carroll County 49.4
- Craig County 49.3
- Grayson County 49.2
- (tie) Alleghany County and Mecklenburg County 49.1
- King and Queen County 49.0
19. Goochland County 48.9
20. Westmoreland County 48.8
21. Franklin County 48.6
22. Essex County 48.3
23. Botetourt County 47.9
24. (tie) Buchanan County and Henry County 47.8
Some context: Highland County is one of the oldest counties in the whole country. It just barely missed making a list of six counties in the country where the median age is 60 or higher:
- Sumter County, Florida 68.3
- Kalawao County, Hawaii 65.5
- Catron County, New Mexico 61.8
- Harding County, New Mexico 60.3
- Charlotte County, Florida 60.2
- Jeff Davis County, Texas 60
Now let’s flip things around and look at the youngest localities in the state. Virginia has five localities where the median age is under 30:
1. Lexington 22.2
2. Radford 24.4
3. Harrisonburg 25.7
4. Williamsburg 28.5
5. Lynchburg 28.6
All these localities have one thing in common: They’re college towns, although some may more readily think of Lexington as a college town than they do Lynchburg.
Now, here’s where things get fun. These numbers underscore the diversity of Virginia. The Census Bureau says that no other state has as big an age range between its oldest locality and its youngest one as Virginia does – an age gap of 37.1 years. Yet somehow state government must make policies that fit both of them.
But, wait, there’s more! Lexington isn’t just the youngest locality in the state, it’s the youngest locality in the country, the Census Bureau says, even though it sometimes feels as if Lexington, with all its history, is living in the past. Even more census data: Radford is the fifth youngest locality in the country. (I use the phrase “locality” for a reason. The Census Bureau counts things by counties. Virginia, with its system of independent cities and counties, messes up the Census Bureau system so the phrase the Census Bureau uses is “county or county equivalent.” Clunky but gets the job done. I’m going with the more generic “locality” instead, but just understand that in the context of this column, “locality” is my shorthand for “county or county equivalent.”)
Here are the five youngest localities in the country:
- Lexington 22.2
- Todd County, South Dakota 23.0
- Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska 23.7
- Madison County, Idaho 23.7
- Radford 24.4
This would seem to give Lexington and Radford some pretty good talking points. Who would have thought two of the youngest places in the country would be in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge – and technically in Appalachia (if you go by the definition of the Appalachian Regional Commission)?
Those aren’t the localities I find most interesting on this list, though. Instead, I draw your attention to Lynchburg.
It’s a college town, home to four four-year schools: Liberty University, Randolph College, University of Lynchburg and Virginia University of Lynchburg. We just don’t typically think of it as a college town because of its size, north of 79,000 in the last census. All the other college towns on the list above are smaller, with Lexington coming in the smallest at 7,320. Obviously, the smaller the population, the more things can get skewed by students living off campus. That’s harder to do with a bigger population, which is what makes Lynchburg’s presence on the list so fascinating.
Generally speaking, urban areas are younger than rural areas. Statewide, Norfolk (with its military population) posts a median age of 31.4, Newport News 34.2, Richmond 34.8, Arlington 35.6, Hampton 36.2, Alexandria 37.9
Lynchburg, though, is younger than them. It’s younger than Charlottesville (33.2), which we think of as a young, happening kind of place. It’s much younger than Roanoke (38.5), which ranks as one of the oldest cities in the state. If you think of Lynchburg as an old, stodgy place, your impression is simply wrong. Lynchburg is, in fact, Virginia’s youngest major city. Lynchburg is also the fecundity capital of this side of the state. Only five localities in Southwest and Southside are recording more births than deaths: Appomattox County, Lexington, Lynchburg, Radford and Roanoke. In 2021, Lynchburg’s births-over-deaths rate was higher than the other four places put together. (In Lynchburg, the figure was 178 more births than deaths. In Appomattox the net was four, in Lexington,45, in Radford seven and in Roanoke 34.)
So what’s all this mean? Well, if nothing else, it means we need some outlook adjustments. We can no longer say that Southwest and Southside are the oldest parts of the state, because they’re not. We also need to adjust ourselves to the reality of Lynchburg’s youthfulness. When will public impressions catch up to the numerical reality?