I’m a demographic analyst at Carolina Demography, an applied demography group located within the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how North Carolina’s population is changing and what that means in terms of housing, education, transportation, and our state’s economy.

In other words, I’m constantly projecting how population changes will affect our state’s future. But before we get into predictions about North Carolina in 2040, it’s important to talk about the last few decades, when North Carolina’s population shifted rapidly—but unevenly. 

First, let’s talk about how our state has grown.

Every year since 1970, we’ve grown faster than the nation—and projections indicate we’ll add roughly a million new residents every decade for the next twenty to thirty years. But this growth has been highly uneven across the state. In fact, just three counties accounted for more than half of North Carolina’s growth from 2010 to 2015: Wake, Mecklenburg, and Durham. Meanwhile, nearly half of North Carolina’s one hundred counties have declined in population since 2010. 

What accounts for this imbalanced growth? Largely, people moving here from other places. 

Since 2015, North Carolina has averaged more than 110,000 new residents each year. Most of this growth is from net migration, meaning more people are moving to our state than are moving away. And those new residents tend to be more highly educated and live in more urban areas. Since 2010, two-thirds of Wake’s growth has come from net migration, meaning about forty-two more people move into Wake County each day than move out. Charlotte and its suburbs have seen similar growth. 

These urban counties now contain more people born outside of North Carolina than people born within our state. They also attract younger adults from more rural counties, accelerating the population decline in rural counties. 

These population changes aren’t happening in a vacuum. People tend to follow jobs, and job growth in North Carolina has been highly concentrated. Between 2010 and 2019, statewide employment increased by more than seven hundred thousand jobs, but they were almost entirely in just ten urban counties. The remaining 90 percent of North Carolina counties accounted for just 30 percent of job growth in nearly a decade.

Migration is likely keeping us young. Counties with the highest net migration rates tended to have a steady influx of young adults, as they attract young professionals, new families, college students, and military personnel. Counties with large population declines across North Carolina tend to have much older populations, as fewer adults choose to locate there or return after college. (Of course, there are exceptions to these patterns: Some of our fastest-growing counties are retirement destinations, like Brunswick County, with high net migration rates of older adults.)

With high and quick growth comes major headaches. Average work-commute times are increasing faster than the state average in our largest metro areas, as most workers travel solo in their cars. 

And housing prices continue to rise. 

From 2011 to 2016, median rents across the state increased just $23. But across the Triangle, median rents saw increases of $100 or more. Barriers to homeownership for many young adults have meant that very few newly occupied units in North Carolina’s urban areas are owned.

So what does this mean for our region in 2040? 

Based on current projections, we’ll continue to see uneven growth across the state—with two-thirds of growth taking place in the Raleigh and Charlotte metros alone. Rural counties will continue to experience declines, as well as an overall “graying” of the population. By 2035, more than a quarter of the population in many rural areas will be sixty-five or older.

We’ll also see more jobs in the Triangle and Charlotte regions. Industries that have flourished in the past decade—information technology, biotechnology, and banking—all benefit from being in highly educated, dense urban centers. As these industries develop, we’ll see growth in the indirect industries that support these businesses, as well as in the types of businesses that support new workers moving there, such as grocery stores and restaurants.

Barring unforeseen changes in the natural environment, public policy, or economy, these are the trends we can expect to continue through 2040. There will be more people working in or near the Triangle, more people commuting into the Triangle, and more people needing houses to live in or near the Triangle. 

In other words, expect more delays on I-40. 

Jess Stanford is a research analyst at Carolina Demography, an applied demography group within the Carolina Population Center at UNC that provides people with the data and analysis they need to make sense of population-level changes across the state.

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