Maybe because she spends her time crunching numbers and analyzing data, Susan Brower is afraid people think her job is boring.
“My 14-year-old tells me that all the time,” Brower says. “ ‘It’s so dull.’ ”
Others disagree. People are so interested in hearing Brower talk that she limits her public speaking engagements to two a week to leave time for her spreadsheets.
As the Minnesota state demographer, Brower quantifies the great societal shifts that could change lives in the state: the aging of the population, the changing structure of families and households, an inevitable increase in diversity, and how the state’s economic growth may depend on welcoming more immigration.
At 46, Brower is a member of Generation X, the generation “that no one talks about because we don’t have a good name,” she says.
She lives in Minneapolis, with her husband and two kids (and two cats), a type of household that demographers will tell you is becoming rarer in the state.
Brower also grew up in Minneapolis, where her father was a printer and her mother worked as a nurse. She went to Minnehaha Academy, St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She got her doctorate in sociology at the University of Michigan, where she specialized in demography and family sociology.
She took the state demographer’s job in 2012 after stints as a researcher on the Minnesota Compass project and at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.
Brower was drawn to demography because you can use population statistics — the data on births, deaths, employment, education, aging and migration — “to see beyond what’s visible.”
“You can see what’s coming,” she says.
Here are some of her predictions of what’s coming to Minnesota in an interview we’ve edited for clarity and space:
You’re the third person who’s held the post of state demographer, taking over from Tom Gillaspy, who held the position for nearly 33 years. After five years, how is the job fitting?
I love it. It’s wonderful. It’s tough at times, but it’s super rewarding. I feel lucky because I get to see the impact that some of this information has on policies. I can see how it helps people understand what’s going on in the world around them and how to prepare for changes coming up. And I get to talk to so many different people. That’s not something I would necessarily be drawn to. I’m more on the introverted side.
You speak of demography providing an insight on what isn’t immediately visible right now. What’s an example of that?
As we were recovering from the Great Recession, I was talking about labor force shortages. And it seemed strange to people. Why are we talking about this right now? We had this terrible recession. Job, jobs, jobs is what we need to be focusing on. But it was clear we were about five years away from this shift in the number of people that we had available as workers here in the state. That’s just one example of how you can see a little more than what’s immediately in front of you. Tom Gillaspy had been raising this issue before me. It was pretty clear to demographers that one of the immediate impacts of aging would be on the workforce because as baby boomers transition out of their working years, that’s where you feel it first. There’s so many baby boomers retiring, it’s already begun. But it will continue over the next 10 to 15 years.
Minnesota is not one of those places where you hear people say, let’s move to Minnesota for our retirement.
We do see a little bit of an uptick around age 62, 65, in people leaving the state. It’s a very small proportion of the overall population. So it doesn’t make that much of a difference in the big picture. What we do also see is when people move away, they go to California, they go to Florida, Arizona. But we see a return migration after that. So we see a net gain of people in their 70s, maybe after their health begins failing, or their spouse’s health begins failing. They return back to their community to be around their kids, around good health care. So if we do see some movement out, we’re likely to see it back at some point.
During the recession, there were up to eight unemployed job seekers for every job vacancy. Now it’s about one to one. What happens when employers can’t get enough workers?
It’s a real concern right now and for the next five to 10 years. Further out, there’s kind of a big question mark what role automation and technology will play. We know right now what’s on the horizon in terms of what machines can do and what they can’t. Five and 10 years out, that picture may be very different. Maybe that will relieve some of this pressure. My concern really is for the next 10 years, when automation isn’t fully implemented, that we’ll have a worker shortage.
If we’re going to have a worker shortage, do we want a new Amazon headquarters that would require 50,000 workers?
That’s a good question. And I think that’s one of the main concerns for other employers here. We have demand enough already for the workers that we have. I guess what we could think about is how do we choose jobs that are going to improve quality of life for more residents. We know that the sector of food service and accommodation is going to grow. And it already has really exploded. It’s going to continue to grow. But typically those aren’t the jobs that pay well enough to support a family. So maybe the kind of jobs that we want to attract are the ones that are better paying.
Does Minnesota have any advantages in luring better paying jobs here?
We have a lot of advantages. We have a highly educated workforce. We have a long history of a strong work ethic. People are really oriented to work around here. And some of the changes that are happening around the coast are unpredictable, but there’s some anticipation that we’ll see water levels rise up, that we’ll see increasing intensity of storms due to climate change, and here, we’re pretty well insulated from that kind of disruption.
That’s ironic. When we think about attracting people to move here, a big obstacle has been the climate.
It might be a plus, longer term. We also have a really good quality of life here compared with a lot of the other places. One of the things we can do in the cities is send our kids to public schools. That’s a huge benefit for a lot of professionals. If you were in Chicago or another area, they don’t dream of it. They all move out to the suburbs where they feel they have a decent school system.
In terms of a future worker shortage, how will immigration affect the state?
The future is going to look different if we have immigration or not. But immigration really could help us sustain the economic growth and the quality of life that we have become accustomed to. We’re not having enough children right now to have the workforce we’re likely to need in the future. We have more people, young people, leaving the state than are coming here from other states. So international immigration is the only other way you get residents or potential workers. That’s already been a tremendous help in keeping the economy going. We would expect that, barring any kind of policy that would change that, to continue to be something that helps us in the future.
Steven Ruggles, a University of Minnesota demographer, wrote that the country is in a “broad retreat” from marriage. What’s happening?
This is part of a broader, much, much broader, global trend in industrialized countries toward later marriage or non-marriage, toward cohabitation, in having children outside of marriage. The nuclear family we once took for the norm is dissolving, and has been for 50 years. About a third of all Minnesota babies now are born to unmarried women. This has implications for the aging trend as well, because when we have more complex families with cohabitation, we typically have more transitions, meaning people who break up, maybe come back together. Family instability creates question marks for how we care for the older generation because the ties aren’t as set. If your parent is married to a second or third wife or husband, how closely do you feel that connection to care for that person when that person gets older? Some of those questions for how we care for our older generation are coming up next after we get through the workforce issue.
Much has been written about the gaps between whites and people of color in Minnesota. Is the disparity closing?
The gaps have been incredibly persistent for a very long time. What I’ve seen in the short time I’ve been working on demographic issues and social indicators, is there has been more serious focus on these issues in recent years because people are understanding just how important it is for everyone’s well-being. But as far as I can tell, the emphasis is relatively new. There’s been some attention paid before, but maybe not the same level of urgency that we’re now seeing.
Will Minnesota lose one of its eight U.S. House seats after the 2020 census?
If everything were to march along like normal from here to 2020, it would appear that we would lose a seat. It would be very likely. But there are plenty of things that don’t march along neatly. One of the things that’s happening right now that is throwing a big question mark over the whole census is how it’s funded. It’s extremely underfunded. The Census Bureau at this time typically would be setting up offices. Last time around they had something like 50 people in Minnesota to help do outreach to let people know what they need to do to fill out the census questionnaire, that it was safe, that it was mandatory. They’re expecting to have only 12 officials statewide this time rather than 50. They’re implementing a new response system where you can go online and fill out your census form but they don’t have the funding to fully test those systems. What could go wrong if you don’t test an IT system, right? That puts a big question mark about how we compare relative to other states in terms of our apportionment. We typically do very well on censuses. We were second in the mail-back response only to Wisconsin. So people here are dutiful. They do their civic duty and return the form. That could really help us to retain that seat if our response is higher than other places. It’s an opportunity for us here to do a really excellent job at the census, to do everything we can to make up for some of the underfunding at the federal level.
As a demographer, are you optimistic with the changes that you foresee?
I’m OK with change. Not everyone is. I talk to a lot of people who are resisting change. They resist what kind of changes we may see in immigration or diversity. Everyone’s resisting their own aging, probably. But change is coming. I’m optimistic that the demographic changes that we see will open up new opportunities for us so that we’ll have the ability to put into place things that we’d like to see. I think there will be disruption. There has to be by some of the demographic shifts that are about to unfold over the next 20 to 30 years, especially as the huge cohort of baby boomers reaches the older ages where they’ll need more care and require more public services. I think that will be disruptive to many of our public budgets, to our institutions. But I have optimism that we can put into place things that work better for more people.