Author: Michael Cline, North Carolina State Demographer
North Carolina is projected to reach 11.7 million people by 2030 according to our latest population projections. As a result of this growth, and given trends in other states shown in the US Census Bureau’s latest population estimates, our state will gain an additional congressional seat following the 2030 Census (see: How Congressional Maps Could Change in 2030 | Brennan Center for Justice). North Carolina is on track to surpass the populations of Georgia and Ohio to become the 7th largest state in the nation by the early 2030s.
Looking further into the future, we project 14.2 million people will live in North Carolina by 2050. That’s an increase of 3.8 million people since 2020 – adding roughly the current populations of our six largest counties (Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham, Forsyth, New Hanover, and Guilford Counties). In this blog I highlight seven major takeaways for the trends shown in these population projections.
1. More People Will Continue to Arrive from Other States and Nations
Future growth will almost exclusively depend upon more people moving to the state than leaving (net migration) since we project a shift towards natural decrease (more deaths than births). Whereas net migration accounted for about two-thirds of our population growth since the 1990s, all of the state’s population growth will depend on net migration by the 2040s. This will mean eventually more North Carolinians will be born outside the state than those born within it. According to the 2022 American Community Survey (ACS), approximately 46% of North Carolina’s population was born outside of North Carolina – including nine percent who were born outside of the United States.
Components of Population Change, 1950-2020 and Projected Through 2050
2. North Carolina’s Population Will Be More Racially/Ethnically Diverse than Today
Throughout our state’s history, the North Carolina population consisted primarily of American Indian, African American or Black, and White or European groups. Since the 1990s, rapid growth in the Asian and Hispanic/Latino populations have resulted in a much more racially/ethnically diverse North Carolina population. These latter groups have a younger age profile – meaning that even without migration we expect these groups to continue to grow and our population to become more diverse.
In 2020, 39% of the state’s population was either Hispanic, Non-Hispanic American Indian, Non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander, Non-Hispanic Black, or Non-Hispanic Multiracial. By 2050, the same groups will account for 48% of North Carolina’s overall population.
3. There Will be More Older People Living Here
As the Baby Boom generation ages into retirement more North Carolinians will be 65 years old or older than today. Some of these older folks will be migrants from other areas – attracted to North Carolina’s many retirement destinations or to be nearer to quality medical care and/or family. By the end of this decade, 1 of every 5 North Carolinians will be at least 65 years old and by the early part of next decade, there will be more older adults (age 65+) than children (ages 0 through 17) in North Carolina.
4. Growth in the Early Childhood Population Will Surpass the Growth of the Primary/Secondary and College Age Populations
The early childhood population (ages 0 through 4) decreased by 38,000 children during the last decade. By 2020, there were 593,000 children in this age group. A larger cohort of women in prime child-bearing years will mean more births during the 2020s than in the 2010s. This early childhood age group will increase by a projected 11% during the 2020s, adding about 63,000 children between 2020 and 2030. By 2030, there will be an estimated 656,000 children in this age group. If these trends continue, we expect there to be 783,000 pre-school age children by 2050 – 190,000 (+32%) more than what was present in 2020.
5. The Primary/Secondary School Age Population Will Remain About the Same Size in 2030 as it is Today
The primary and secondary school population will remain about the same size as it was in 2020 – adding only 19,000 children over the decade to 1,683,000 by 2030. The Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated long-term fertility rate declines. Fewer babies meant fewer kids turning age 5 over the past decade resulting in this slow population growth. More robust growth among this age group will return during the 2030s and 2040s so that by 2050 there will be an estimated 2,059,000 primary/secondary school age children – 235,000 more children than the 1,664,000 present in 2020.
6. The Rate of Growth in the College Age Population Will Slow, Population Declines Expected in the 2030s
The factors impacting the primary/secondary school age population will eventually affect the college age population as the cohorts of children born during the Great Recession and beyond turn age 18. By 2030, 1,106,000 North Carolinians will be aged 18 through 24, an increase of 75,000 people between 2020 and 2030. However, this age group will start to experience annual population decline at the end of this decade and into the next – with the number of 18 through 24-year-olds decreasing by less than 1,000 between 2030 and 2040. This age group is projected to begin to grow again so that by 2050, there will be 1,213,000 college age North Carolinians – 181,000 (+18%) more people in 2050 than were present in 2020.
7. North Carolina Will Become a More Urban State
In 2020, 65% of all North Carolinians (or 6.8 million people) lived within 22 urban or regional center/suburban counties, with the remaining 35% (or 3.7 million people) living in 78 rural counties. Continued rapid growth in the Piedmont and in and around major urban areas will lead to more rural counties increasing in population size and density. With increased population density, some of these counties will be re-classified as suburban. By 2030, Lee and Harnett Counties will have enough population to be classified as regional center/suburban counties.
The rural population will increase slightly to 3.7 million people by 2030 even with the shift of these two counties away from the rural classification and projected population losses in 26 rural counties. The remainder of the state’s population in 2030—8.1 million people—is projected to live within the 24 urban or regional center/suburban counties. This means 69% of the state’s projected 2030 population will live in urban or regional center/suburban counties. By 2050, that proportion is expected to rise to more than 75%, with 10.8 million people living in urban or regional center/suburban counties (28 counties). Less than a quarter of North Carolina’s projected population will live in the remaining 72 rural counties (3.4 million).
Population in Rural, Regional Center/Suburban, and Urban Counties by Decade in Millions, 2010-2050
Projected 2050 Population and Percent Population Change, 2020 - 2050
About These Population Projections
The State Demographer in the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management produces population projections annually. These population projections provide insights into population changes occurring within the state so that state agencies, local governments, and others can plan to meet the future needs of North Carolinians. The population projections referenced in this summary are the Vintage 2023 Population Projections and they incorporated trends shown in the latest population estimates (the Vintage 2022 Population Estimates). You can access summary tables or the several datasets that provide population projections by sex, age, race and Hispanic origin for the state, regions, and counties.