Virginia localities by median age in 2019. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

China is now losing population, the inevitable demographic consequence of its now-abandoned one-child policy.

The country’s population dropped by 0.06% last year, but Chinese officials predict that the annual decline will soon grow to 1.1% per year – until the country’s population of 1.41 billion shrinks to 600 million by 2100.

With a population of decline of 1.1% a year, China finds itself akin to Halifax County, whose population is estimated to have shrunk by 2.2% over the past two years. Both have the same demographic challenge: an aging population and too few young adults, especially ones making babies.

We may be worried about China as a rising economic power but it’s actually a nation in the first stages of demographic decline. We can argue about how much population growth is too much, but population decline is inextricably linked with economic decline. 

China’s not the only country whose population is shrinking as birth rates fall and life spans grow longer. Japan’s prime minister recently warned that it was “now or never” for his country to reverse a falling population. “Japan is standing on the verge of whether we can continue to function as a society,” Fumio Kishida told lawmakers. One of his aides later said that “if we go on like this, the country will disappear.” The World Bank says that 30% of Japan’s population is now 65 and over – the second-highest percentage in the world, beside only the tiny European principality of Monaco.

So if Japan is in a “now or never” situation with 30% of its population being 65 and over, how do we stand? Let’s take a look. The comparable figure for the United States is 17%. Our birth rate, while falling, is a little higher: 1.6 per woman versus Japan’s 1.3 (both under the so-called “replacement rate” of 2.1). The United States is also kept younger by immigration, something Japan has actively resisted.

Now let’s look closer to home. In Virginia, 16.2% of our population is 65 or older, so we’re a smidge younger than the nation as a whole. But we also know there are vast disparities within the state, so let’s dig deeper.

Five localities have a higher percentage of 65 and older than Japan does:

Lancaster County: 36.73%

Northumberland County: 36.55%

Highland County: 36.16%

Middlesex County: 32.61%

Mathews County: 31.59%

Four of those are rural counties near the Chesapeake Bay that have become retirement havens; Highland, of course, is on the western side of the state. Then there are 15 counties that come close to Japan-like levels:

Bath County: 28.86%

Nelson County: 28.80%

Northampton County: 28.80%

Rappahannock County: 28.14%

Rockbridge County: 27.08%

Patrick County: 27.07%

Mecklenburg County: 26.57%

Westmoreland County: 26.41%

Charles City County: 26.39%

James City County: 26.36%

Alleghany County: 25.82%

Carroll County: 25.72%

Grayson County: 25.69%

Halifax County: 25.32%

Accomack County: 25.21%

Eight of these 15 counties are along the Blue Ridge, three others are along the Chesapeake Bay.

Perhaps one surprise from these lists is that no county in coal country makes these lists, and only two in Southside do. We think of those localities as places with lots of out-migration by young adults – which historically has been true – but that’s not reflected in these age distributions. The percentage of the population that is over 65 in the coal counties is higher than the national average, but not that much higher – and not out of line with many other rural areas. 

The highest percentage in far Southwest Virginia is Scott County, where 24.9% of the population is 65 and over. Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell and Tazewell counties range from 22.87% in Lee to 23.6% in Buchanan. Those are little different from, say, Goochland County just west of Richmond (23.36%) And then there’s Wise County (19.3%) and Norton (18.39%), which aren’t that different from the national average. Albemarle County, just outside one of the state’s biggest college communities, is older than those two localities – not by much (19.74%), but still higher. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the 15 localities with the lowest percentage of 65 and older.

Chesapeake: 14.0%

Montgomery County: 13.96%

Newport News: 13.69%

Charlottesville: 13.29%

Alexandria: 12.70%

Norfolk: 11.98%

Fredericksburg: 11.63%

Arlington County: 11.59%

Manassas: 11.02%

Stafford County: 10.90%

Prince Wiliam County: 10.83%

Loudoun County: 10.16%

Harrisonburg: 9.97%

Radford: 9.65%

Manassas Park: 8.81%

Not surprisingly, these are a mix of cities (especially ones with colleges) and the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. (Montgomery County makes the list but those figures are driven by the presence of Virginia Tech, so it’s a college county, so to speak.)

Some other ways to look at this data. The state’s oldest city is Bristol, where 22.01% of the population is 65 or older. Danville, Emporia and Staunton all fall between 20% and 21%. In Roanoke, the figure is 17.25%, not far off the national average. Martinsville is younger at 16.96%. Lynchburg, with all its colleges, is distinctly younger: Only 14.31% of its population is 65 and older.

In some ways, these figures don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know – localities in this part of the state already know they need to attract more young adults to balance out their populations and create a larger workforce and tax base. But these figures do give us another way to think about demography. In 1980, a one-hit British band, The Vapors, hit the charts with its quirky song “Turning Japanese,” often remembered (incorrectly) as “I Think I’m Turning Japanese.”

In some parts of Virginia, we already have.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at