North Dakota has acquired a youthful swagger that still registers as a happy case of demographic whiplash for a state that not long ago was wringing its hands over the mass exodus of its young people. During much of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, North Dakota suffered a prolonged bout of out-migration of its young adults - an especially dire population loss since they represent the future, not only as workforce but also as parents. Not anymore.
Census figures show North Dakota now leads the nation in the portion of young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, who comprise 9.1 percent of the population. That compares to 8.8 percent in 2010 and 7.9 percent in 2000. It's a remarkable turnaround. It wasn't that long ago that politicians were arguing about whether to offer tuition breaks for college students who stayed in North Dakota after graduation. Some even advocated changing the state's name to Dakota to give it a warmer, more welcoming image. A gloomy outlook lingered over the state like a stubborn fog.
The big change, of course, came from the ongoing oil boom enabled by hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling techniques that made it feasible - and profitable - to liberate hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits locked in shale stone deep underground. More economic ripple effects - and opportunities - have come from high farm commodity prices. North Dakota's impressive economic boom is very much rooted in its rich natural resources as well as its friendly regulatory climate.
As personal income levels have surged in North Dakota, the state has become an economic magnet. As of last year, per-capita income in North Dakota was $51,893, well above the $42,693 national level. After years of lagging behind the national median for personal income, North Dakota not long ago shot ahead of the national benchmark. In 2010, the state experienced a net migration gain of 32,216, followed by a gain of 30,100 in 2011, and 38,213 in 2012.
North Dakota's more youthful age profile is significant for many reasons. Most obviously, it's a tangible sign of optimism, as young people and their families flock to the state in search of a promising future. It translates into what demographers call a dependency ratio. It means a bigger population of working-age adults to support retirees. A lower dependency ratio is better than a high dependency ratio, and the influx of young adults helps to build a more sustainable future.
Of course, the rapid population growth in the Oil Patch has been a tremendous challenge, with cities, counties, schools and service providers scrambling to keep up. Those problems continue, and we don't minimize them. But the fact that North Dakota, once seemingly destined to become a very "gray" state, now leads the nation in the proportion of young adults is very good news.