Minnesota's two largest urban counties saw striking population declines in 2021 after a decade of growth, according to new U.S. census data, likely due to COVID-19 pandemic disruptions which upended college plans and accelerated retirements.

Hennepin County's population, which includes Minneapolis, dropped by nearly 13,900 last year and Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul, declined by 8,200 people, according to new census estimates released Thursday. In contrast, five suburban counties — Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Washington and Scott — experienced modest population growth ranging from 1,300 in Carver County to 4,100 in Washington County.

State demographer Susan Brower said it's still too early to say if this is a one-year blip or the leading edge of a trend. Brower said it's also too soon to say if other factors, including more flexible work-from-home arrangements and concerns about social unrest and crime in the Twin Cities contributed to the decline.

"This is the first time in recent years we've ever seen Hennepin County decline in these estimates," Brower said. "Not only did it decline, but it declined by nearly 14,000 people. That is considerable."

Brower said she believes the 2021 data most likely reflects how the pandemic affected the migration of society's most mobile population, young adults as well as those in the sunset of their careers.

"College students who otherwise would have moved to the Twin Cities to go to school deferred. Students who were in school here in the Twin Cities moved back home," Brower said. "We also know people retired earlier than they otherwise would have in their older ages. We may have seen some of that movement up to the lake sooner than we would have otherwise."

She said well-established trends such as declining birth rates, an aging population and decreasing immigration became even more pronounced during the pandemic.

"International immigration is another piece of this as well," Brower said. "It's been slowing down over the last few years. It was especially slow during the pandemic as everyone sort of stayed put."

Officials at the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency, say they are studying the new data, but they believe their own population estimates to be released in July will be higher.

"We think our population estimates will look different based on development trends," said Met Council Research Manager Joel Huting.

Huting said they look at housing counts and building permits in determining population estimates and 2020 was a strong year for development with more than 19,000 residential units added across the Twin Cities.

Has disruption subsided?

While anecdotal reports of people leaving cities and flocking to more spacious suburbs and rural communities during the pandemic abound, Brower said this one year of census data doesn't provide that kind of insight.

"That is something I am not entirely sure of yet. That's because we can't disentangle the retirement migration and the student migration from those people in their middle years, families looking to make a move out of an urban county to a more rural setting or a more suburban setting."

Brower said she believes the disruption to college students and the surge of retirements has subsided.

"We know enrollment numbers rebounded at the University of Minnesota. Classes were held in person in the fall," Brower said.

Brower said it will take more data to determine if the pandemic has prompted some people to move away from core cities for other reasons, including more work flexibility.

"I do hear from people who say, 'We think a lot of people have been freed from their desks and now they can live wherever they want to live.' These data are consistent with that as well, so we may see that emerge as an ongoing pattern. But because this was so close to all of that other unusual migration, we need to be a little bit careful."

Unrest impact uncertain

Brower said there is a strong sense among some Minnesotans, especially away from the Twin Cities, that people fearful of unrest and violence are leaving the urban core.

"When I talk to greater Minnesota audiences, they are really expecting to see this. Those narratives are very much alive," Brower said. "I am surprised at the number of places I go where it comes up.

"These numbers are not inconsistent with that, but there's enough other things going on at the same time that doesn't allow us to pinpoint that as the leading narrative of what I think is happening."