Are the Young (and Younger) Getting Left Behind in California?

California is often thought of as a mecca for well-educated, driven, and tech-savvy young people. With access to large companies and start-ups, beaches and mountains, and the world’s 5th largest economy, it’s not hard to see why. Yet lurking behind the Golden State’s influx of rising professionals is a gloomier picture of life for California’s young people. According to the Social Progress Index (SPI) for California Counties, California may be at risk of leaving much of the next generation behind. Out of 56 counties ranked on social progress, four of the bottom five and seven of the bottom ten have median ages under 35.

Plotting social progress against the median age in each county reveals two distinct groupings: a group of ‘younger’ counties with a median age range of 30 to 42 and a group of ‘older’ counties with a median age range of 42 to 52. An interesting pattern emerges within both groups: in general, older counties tend to have higher social progress while younger counties tend to have lower levels of social progress.

Graph: Median Ages of California Counties and SPI Scores. Boxes indicate age grouping.

The ‘younger’ grouping (ages 30-42) is fairly regionally divided. Within the grouping, the younger counties (ages 30-37) tend to be in the San Joaquin Valley and struggle more on social progress; these include counties such as Kern, Fresno, Kings, and Madera. In contrast, the older counties (ages 37-42) tend to have higher social progress scores and be located in the Bay Area. San Mateo, Napa, and Sonoma, among others, are good examples. 

There is no clear regional divide within the ‘older’ grouping (ages 42-52) that provides an explanation for the age and social progress pattern. Yet—with the exception of Marin and El Dorado, in the Bay Area and Greater Sacramento regions respectively—most of the counties in the ‘older’ grouping are either in Central Sierra or Northern California. For example, Northern California contains both Plumas and Lake Counties. However, Plumas is much older with an average age of 50.83 years and a significantly higher social progress score (54.54 points) than Lake County which has a social progress score of 40.76 and an average age of 45.37 years. Thus, the variation in the ‘older’ grouping is most-likely at the county, not regional, level.

While the regional pattern of the ‘younger’ grouping does not hold true for the ‘older grouping’, the data from the SPI: California Counties can be broken down into dimensions which can provide more nuanced insight into social progress trends and correlations. For example, within the ‘older’ grouping, scores on the dimension of Basic Human Needs are more aligned with the observed social progress and age pattern than on the dimensions of Foundations of Wellbeing and Opportunity. This suggests that perhaps broader regional-level interventions may only be effective for the ‘younger’ grouping in the San Joaquin Valley. In contrast, more tailored interventions within the dimension of Basic Human Needs for the Central Sierra and Northern California regions may have the most impact for the ‘older grouping.’

By measuring Social Progress on the county level in California, we have created a powerful tool that can be used to locally target both broad and specific social progress issues in an effort to heighten the lived-experience of people of all ages across the state. This limited analysis is only the beginning; data can drive solutions to some of the most pressing social problems that our world faces. It’s time to move beyond GDP and dive into the data to catalyze action and impact the lives of young people in California.

Graph: Median Ages of California Counties and GDP Per Capita.

Perhaps most importantly, when plotted against median age, the GDP per capita of the counties in California does not reveal the same pattern as the social progress data. In fact, younger counties seem to be doing just as well, if not better than their older counterparts when success is measured by GDP. This data is a powerful reminder of why it’s time to move beyond GDP as a tool to gauge the success of our society. 

Now more than ever, young people are advocating for access to healthcare, to preserve the environment, and for a better lived-experience. To ensure the continued influx of rising professionals in California, it is imperative that the state addresses some of the regional divides and measures what matters to people of all ages, so as not to leave anyone behind. 

Visit our website to learn more about the Social Progress Index for California Counties.

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