Michigan’s brain drain is back, as best and brightest leave state

brain drain
Image Credit: Shutterstock

When it comes to population, Michigan is no longer a rarity –  a state losing population while every other one is gaining it.

The state has gained residents since bottoming out in 2009 after five straight years of decline. But recovery has been tepid and from July 2018 to July 2019, the state’s population increased by just under 3,000 people to nearly 10 million, down from average annual growth of 17,500 the previous three years.

And while that’s still better than other states –  six have lost population since 2010 – Michigan’s slowing growth worries state and local government officials who rely on taxes to support services.

What’s worse: Early data indicate those who are leaving the state tend to be younger and more educated, exactly the sort of residents Michigan leaders want to attract.

And that’s despite a robust economy. So what’s going on?

One obvious issue: Births in Michigan are down to their lowest level since 1941, while deaths are increasing. Last year, there were only 13,500 more births than deaths, nearly half of what it was as recently as 2012.


Deaths will eclipse births in Michigan by 2030, a few years before they do nationwide, said Eric Guthrie, the state’s demographer. At the same time, immigration from other countries is decreasing.

Immigration has fallen in recent decades and the rate of decline has intensified since 2016, which some experts partially attribute to President Trump’s immigration policy

Nationwide, immigration is down 41 percent, or more than 451,000 people since 2016. Michigan has felt that decline too, with international immigration falling 52 percent to just 13,146, the lowest number in decades.


And nationally, fewer people are moving between states, down to the lowest point since the Census began to measure migration in 1947, according to researchers.

For much of Michigan’s history, the state has been a destination. In the 2000s, though, some 570,000 residents left for other states. So the decline in the last couple years pales compared to the 2000s or the losses during the early 1980s. 

“Michigan is sustaining net out-migration probably due to young people leaving the state for opportunities elsewhere but it doesn't look as dire as MIchigan's situation a decade ago, or other states today,” said William Frey, a research professor with the Population Studies Center and Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Net losses had stabilized but now they are increasing again, which Guthrie said is troubling considering Michigan’s historically low unemployment rates and rising housing values.


Why folks are moving is unclear. 

“It’s going to take a lot more investigation to get the ‘whys’,” Guthrie said.

But what Guthrie and economists know is that movers are typically younger and more educated –  exactly the people Michigan would want to stay.

Those leaving Michigan had a median age of just under 30 years old and more than 45 percent have a college degree. Compare that to non-movers: Their median age is 43 and 28.5 percent have a college degree.

So combining all of the population elements, Michigan’s 2019 population was estimated at 9,986,857 –  just a tick under 10 million. It would take nearly five years of growth like last year to finally get over 10 million again (it was estimated the state had hit that mark in 2001 but fell below in 2009).


Nationally, as Frey noted, Michigan is not alone when it comes to out-migration. A lot of states are net losers to other states, including New York and California, which saw over 200,000 more people leave the state than come to it.

And in the Midwest, Illinois is losing over 100,000 a year to other states; five states lost more than Michigan. In the Midwest, only Indiana has had a net gain from other states.

Domestic migration, national view

Note: States in orange lost more population to other states than they gained.

However, places like California also gained population from other sources. For instance, California, which has four times the population of Michigan, had more than 180,000 more births than deaths from 2018 to 2019. 

That’s a natural increase that was 13 times larger than Michigan’s natural increase. And California still had over 74,000 immigrants, nearly six times more than Michigan.

So overall, despite losses to other states, California has grown 6.1 percent since 2010; Michigan just 1 percent.

The numbers, of course, are estimates. The official count will occur after this year’s decennial Census.

Overall population change, 2010-2019

Note: States in orange lost population.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mon, 01/06/2020 - 7:26am

It's obvious from your maps, to attract young people you need mountains and or a warm and or sunny climate. Young people like the things that come with these and they are the ones who move because that's what young folks do! Flat, dank, damp and cloudy with a bunch of old line businesses will make it tough no matter what. I'd suggest our state executive branch spends the next 3 years trying change these facts!

oh well
Mon, 01/06/2020 - 8:25am

I guess our taxes are still too high! Ha Ha Let's attract more young educated people with more failing infrastructure and lack of high speed efficient public transportation!

Jack Johnson
Mon, 01/06/2020 - 8:29am

Lots and lots of college graduates leave for work because our largest city cannot attract them. They go to Chicago instead. Detroit appears to be rebounding, but it will have to come much further to provide the kind of jobs and living spaces to attract our own graduates.

Paul Jordan
Mon, 01/06/2020 - 8:32am

It is no mystery why young people leave Michigan. Our public education system is lousy.

Educated, skilled young people leave to find good jobs in areas where there are good public schools and other public amenities. Michigan's Republican-dominated government has focused for many decades on minimizing taxes by degrading public education and other governmental services.

Young people are leaving Michigan because anti-government politicians have succeeded very well.

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 5:49pm

Huh? Kids are leaving Michigan because our lousy education system? Since they are so far behind because of this lousy Ed system wouldn't moving to another state be the worst thing since now they're now in direct competition against kids that are so much better prepared than are they? Seems if you are correct the smart ones would stay put instead of putting yourself at this disadvantage? Your theory doesn't make sense unless you're saying that our kids are just abysmally stupid.

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 10:13am

The only abysmally stupid one in the room is you, Matt. The exodus of young professionals from Michigan are seeking better schools for *their* children, since raising a fail here seems like a losing proposition on all fronts

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 2:07am

Could it be that the kids that have the degrees that we want to keep in Michigan are kids that graduated from Michigan districts that are the best in Michigan? Do you think the kids that graduated from Novi or Saline or other highly rated schools think Michigan schools are bad and wouldn't want their kids going to those schools?
How many young people do you think are planning where to raise a family when they're fresh out of school when they expect to have 3 to 5 employers by the time they are 30 before considering a family?
Could it be that newly minted degrees are looking for places that project an imagine that they are looking for young ideas, that as new degrees they can be part of the 'action', that they will be quickly contributing with their thinking and sweet?
Have you considered that the new generation are looking forward rather than backward, that are more about creativity than security, that are more about changing the future rather then replicating the past?

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 8:37am

In this article immigration includes illegal immigration which skews the data? Was that intentional?

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 3:01pm

A lot of people are scared at the legislative / policy agenda the new Governor has for our state! She is proposing the same kinds of policies that are causing people to leave New York City, California & Illinois in droves. She wants to California our Michigan, and if people don't do something about it quickly, we could be in big trouble.
From 2002-2010, Michigan had 500,000 lost jobs and the highest unemployment rate in the country. The worst economy in the United States. It took Michigan a full decade to recover from that mess.
Yet right now, we're seeing the same kind of legislative agenda that nearly decimated Michigan's economy 10 years ago.
Here's what she said she wanted to do for you in Year 1:
-Turn Michigan the state with the highest gas tax in the country
-Give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants
-Take away guns from law-abiding citizens just like what they're doing in Virginia
-Increase taxes on small businesses by 40-50% according to the Small Business Association
-Turn Michigan into a sanctuary state.
-Drastically increase taxes on people that make more than $75,000 a year by adapting a progressive income tax
-Hand out lots of tax breaks that Michigan cannot afford, creating an uneven playing field for small businesses
-Force people to become part of unions in order to work in our state
-Drastically loosen the requirements for people to get food stamps - instead of getting a job
Sound like a pleasant environment? I think not. Look at the comments on news articles - you will see LOTS of people concerned about the direction our state is headed in. People are scared right now. And I don't blame them.
Socialism doesn't work and has failed just about everywhere it's been tried. Look at what's happening in California & New York - skyrocketing homelessness, costs of living to rise to unbearable levels, businesses closing because the cost of doing business gets to be too high, more crime....I could go on and on.
If we don't wake up, Michigan will never be the same again.

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 5:31pm

I agree.

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 8:57am

None of that is socialism, you bigoted mong. Whitmer's a tepid corporate Democrat, and you think she's the second coming of Lenin. SMFH, and you all vote

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 4:04pm

The Democratic Party is now heavily pushing socialism - just look at many of the leading Democratic Presidential candidates - Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders & Pete Buttigieg. They're all pushing it aggressively. And Whitmer publicly said she supports "Medicare for All", which is socialized medicine.

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 5:05pm

More evidence that Whitmer is dangerous:

Whitmer said she supports the abolition of the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency. Here's the link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ufb-3DCuSNw.

Also, Garlin Gilchrist, the current Lieutenant Governor, questioned why we even have the Department of U.S. Homeland Security.

Gretchen Whitmer lied on the campaign trail & said that a gas tax increase was "ridiculous" to fix the potholes, yet then she said she wanted to raise the gas tax 3 months after her inauguration as Governor.

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 3:43pm

My daughter, her boyfriend, and many of their friends, all graduated with high GPA's from the best colleges in our state, and all left the state. Why? The best job offers they received, even taking into account cost of living, were all from other states. That's why young people are leaving. Employers here are not being competitive in their offers. Could also be too, many of these young people watched as the auto companies screwed over older workers by laying them off late into their careers, and they really aren't going to take a lower offer from a company likely to jettison them when they're too old to get as good of a job elsewhere. I heard many of the young engineers wouldn't consider working for the auto industry because of how their own parents were treated by said companies.

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 8:45pm

I expect [at least those I know] that high school seniors and college freshman and sophomores are already planning to move out of the state. What would help if reporters [the 'economists' won't stoop] would ask those kids about why they want to leave, and what would change that, I think it maybe more than salaries.
As for them worried about the job security, it has been more than a generation where people fresh out of school plant to have several different employers in their career. Many of the benefits are smaller and have been made mobile, such as retirement savings. so loyalty isn't as much of an enticement.
Though I don't doubt that the Detroit 3 auto companies are indictive of the Michigan culture that is uninviting to young professionals [they are too structured in their thinking, they don't encourage new/different approaches to issues/problems. Even Ann Arbor, as cosmopolitan as it is, still doesn't encourage diversity of perspective. If you aren't for higher taxes and more government control then they don't want to hear about any ideas about changing how things are done, simply do want to hear about change.

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 8:21am

Duane you have to admit a large part of the outward migration of students is because that just what kids do! The grass is greener, sense of adventure and something new along with grad schools and finding a first job. It's part of growing up and not a crisis! I'd be willing to bet even the states with large influxes of the new residents have a large number of their new graduating students leaving that state. Our problem is our industries don't have the cache and sit in rapid expansion part of their cycle that other industries in other states do. What's more interesting is how many of these kids move back after experiencing another state.

Charles Buck
Tue, 01/07/2020 - 12:49pm

Don't admit any such nonsense, Duane. Kids are moving back until a few years into their first child. Then Michigan's economic reality peters out the stoney end and they leave again for King County, Harris County, Maricopa County or Cook County. Ten years later, the grandparents follow.

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 4:21pm

It isn't about kids being kids, it is about people wanting to participate, wanting to use what they have learned, wanting to invest their energy in changing things, solving problems, creating new things.
It isn't just employers, it is the culture in small and large communities across Michigan. What are looking for is support of the means and methods to engage those that want to be part of change, part of solving problems that have persisted throughout their lives, part of finding new ways to do things. And it isn't just for the young, it is true across the age spectrum, where in Michigan, who in Michigan is encouraging new ideas, new actions, new results. Compare how the young with their ideas and efforts at one end of the age scale and how the ideas and efforts from those at the other end of that scale are being encouraged to utilized their knowledge and skills. In my town, in the state it is politics and governing as usual, money and laws, and ignore anyone offering new ideas, new ways of participation by individuals and groups [especially the young and old], it is organizational insulation. When was the last time you hear a local or state agency have conversations with the young to learn why they are leaving and what would bring them back, or listening to new ideas on old problems?

Even volunteering the organizations aren't interested in new ideas, I have work with a few different local NGOs over the years and none have wanted to change, none have tried try to carryon a conversation with volunteers to talk about structure, means and methods of volunteer engagement, about how to better utilize the resource of thinking by volunteers [old to young].

It isn't kids leaving because they are kids, it is other places looking like they will give those kids an opportunity to participate in change, something that others want to.
It isn't about kids being kids, it is about the openness to change, about the encouragement of participation, about the willingness to listen to those people claim we need to stay.
Consider Bridge, they report a lot about Michigan education and about those who have matriculated through the system, but when has there been an article that include the students, the graduates, the young? If the media doesn't show any consideration for the youth then why should the youth think Michigan is truly interested in them? People of all ages go where they feel valued, not just by employers but also by the community, by the culture.

Leaving Michigan
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 3:00pm

I completely agree with you, Duane. As a 30 year old millennial that has was born and raised in the state, graduated with great undergraduate and masters degrees from both of our big schools, and spent their entire career here so far, I am finding no choice but to leave this year for greener pastures as I look to start a family. I am able to find more opportunity and higher cost of living-adjusted pay.

It has nothing to do with the weather, auto insurance, or any other false claims that our clueless politicians and leaders come up with as cop-outs to the real problem: decades of incredibly poor and corrupt leadership, which has led to uncompetitive job prospects in stodgy, old line industries that are nearing failure, and a crumbling infrastructure. In other words, the previous generation has completely FAILED the young folks of the state. We have a blue-collar culture here that is all about keeping your head down and grinding it out on a daily basis. Maybe someone should've picked up their head and looked around the country: the U.S. is moving away from a manufacturing economy towards a more advanced service-based economy. Heck, even the Big 3 got it wrong. TESLA IS NOW WORTH MORE THAN FORD AND GM COMBINED. Why on earth did it take a small startup in California to take the idea of electric vehicles mainstream? There is no excuse as to why Detroit isn't the electric car capital of the world. But the reason is simple: decades of inept leadership with zero vision and lust for innovation. The Famous last words: "We do it this way because this is how it's always been done."

Mon, 01/06/2020 - 9:29pm

Maybe Pure Michigan should try and advertise for people to come here to live rather than just take a vacation, except you need to give good reasons for wanting to live here. If I was a young person just starting out from college I would probably leave as well.

Millennial View
Tue, 01/07/2020 - 2:52pm

I second this, I left in 2007 due to low wages. I came back a decade later with a Masters in computer science, still low wages. You want to come back but can't support a family. I work remotely for companies out of state and in Europe. If I couldn't I would move again. Of my close friends from high school, I am the only one living in Michigan currently. Some of them want to come back but can't get competitive offers.

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 8:28am

Funny the two leading states FL and TX, in population gain from looking at your table, both have ZERO income tax. Our governor and her lefty cohort's solution is to raise the rate on the most productive members through steeply graduated income tax?

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 10:18am

What's it like to have the political understanding of a teenager, Matt? To not understand that bad schools and crumbling infrastructure don't magically fix themselves? What's it like to have been gifted a remarkably cushy life despite being demonstrably ignorant, and have absolutely no conception of the broader economic realities of those around you?

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 6:34pm

Is your problem , that you can't read or don't like the accompanying table showing both TX and FL (neither having an income tax) leading the pack? Not sure about my cushy life, but Bone, I can assure you that if your life weren't so consumed with watching gay porn, smoking weed and railing on the internet even you could find your way out of that homeless shelter and find that life isn't all that bad. Good luck!

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 9:00am

Matt, do us all a favor and keel over, you bigoted piece of trash.

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 5:09pm

Matt: Would YOU want to live in Florida or Texas? Flat, hot and crowded. Just because they don't charge any state income tax doesn't mean anything because you will amass a collection of other multiple little taxes. My mother paid a $300 per year ambulance tax in Florida. Florida real estate is expensive unless you live in the interior. Would YOU want to live in the interior of Florida? Why do you persist in the belief that any state can cut taxes by making chicken salad out of chicken &%*t. Do you believe in alchemy like the rest of the Republicans in Michigan?
Is that a product of a Bible belt education? Yes, I couldn't retire in the state where I resided and worked for 50 years and came here to take a HUGE cut in taxes. But I also see a lot more poverty, addiction and haplessness here. It's the deal I have to make with the devil to have a retirement free from worry about finances and I don't have to educate children.

Charles Buck
Tue, 01/07/2020 - 12:24pm

Small western states produced YOY manufacturing employment growth of 36,000 new jobs on average for January through November 2019. Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Arizona grew manufacturing employment at 4.0% on average. Great Lakes states grew factory jobs at 0.1% on average over same period managing to push out 4,000 new jobs but as of the UAW returning to work in November, the region is down 28,000 manufacturing jobs versus November 2018. Michigan use to have the highest manufacturing salaries in the country. It's now an also-ran with dozens of states offering better salaries. Michigan GDP growth was 41st in the country in 2018. First quarter of 2019, 35th; and second quarter, 45th. Michigan manufacturers no longer compete for labor. Plus with a governor screaming "emergency manager!" and offering skies-the-limit business incentive packages for eight years, folks sense desperation and start thinking there's an emergency here and move out.

Millennial View
Tue, 01/07/2020 - 2:47pm

I left in 2007 after getting a BA, then came back a decade later with a MS in a high demand computer science field. There simply aren't enough jobs that pay well, especially in Mid or Northern Michigan. Luckily, I can work remotely. If I couldn't, then I would be part of this brain drain and move again. If I have to move again, I'm not coming back. With the college debt required to get a highly skilled white collar job in the first place, Millennials can't afford to stay in Michigan even if they want to. I have written to the Governor about this and she isn't listening. You can barely support yourself with the wages offered in Michigan, there is literally no skin on the bone left to pay for college debt. That's why the majority of Michiganders have an Associates or less, it's the better and smarter option if you want to stay in this state.

Tue, 01/07/2020 - 4:41pm

This "Business leaders of Michigan" organization who thinks they know everything about education and economics needs to get their act together and start offering competitive wages to keep college grads in Michigan. They want tax cuts, better education opportunities etc. but offer next to nothing in return to help keep people from leaving this state. They seem to think that people should be grateful they are offering anything at all but that is not the way the world works if they want to attract employees.

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 11:10am

Quite interesting comments, but what are they based on, first hand knowledge? I have three kids who went to Michigan colleges and all ended up in Michigan. I have five grandsons and two grand daughters who have recently graduated from college, all but one stayed in State and none had any problem getting good, well paying jobs. The problem with many is that they go into low demand or low paying careers. There are plenty of high paying jobs in Michigan that are begging for technically trained employees. You don't even need a four year college degree to obtain well paying jobs (try hiring an electrician). We need to fill these jobs or they will disappear. Unfortunately you have to start early to encourage kids and parents to consider this direction. I am not convinced that our schools are doing enough to help students understand where the opportunities are. This is not rocket science, we don't need any in-depth study. It is about opportunities, which do exist in this State and about preparing students for the opportunities that are out there.

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 2:23pm

In many of the technical fields Michigan salaries and job qualifications are out of whack, they want to pay little for high qualifications compared to other states. The business community does not want to talk about this, all they want to talk about is that they can't find qualified people.

Sat, 01/11/2020 - 1:01pm

Charles, I have young adult sons are current college students with co-op or internship jobs, and will graduate in 1-2 more years with BS degrees and work experience, but without student debt. They both expect to have to move out of state to get their first professional jobs, unless their co-op employers make them a decent offer.

My spouse and I are both engineers with 25-35 years of experience, and MS/MBA degrees in addition to our BS degrees from world-leading institutions. He has worked remotely for 3 different employers over the past 17 years, because wage rates for technical specialists in Michigan much lower than in most other areas of the country. I have worked only intermittently since accepting a Big 3 buy out in 2003, primarily because so many employers here have been able to hire ex-auto company people with graduate degrees and 10+ years experience for the same salaries offered elsewhere to those with newly-issued BA degrees. This trend has only increased over the past 20 years, as the auto industry restructured and reinvented itself and shows few signs of changing direction, though autonomous vehicles may do the trick for some specialists.

GE moved their technical center for electronics and SW development to Michigan 5 years ago, pulling this work back from India. Why? Because the productivity and quality of the workers they could hire here more than offset the *slightly* higher salaries they offer in metro Detroit. GE pays SW developers only about a third of what similar positions pay in Silicon Valley, and half of what employers have to pay for citizens with similar skills and experience in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Provo. Michigan has a lower cost of living than many high-tech magnet areas, but not THAT much lower.

The only professions that haven't seen widespread wage decreases in Michigan seem to be those like plumber, roofer, mason, or auto mechanic who get hired by the job, often to perform urgently needed repairs for the person hiring them. Between people trapped into taking any job they can get by our states' not-quite-recovered property values and companies using outsourcing, off-shoring, and H1B contractors for as much technical work as possible, Michigan's economic recovery over the past decade has been funded on the backs of people who should be securely prosperous middle class workers and instead are just getting by. Fixing this will be up to our Federal legislators returning US's skilled-immigration programs to their original purpose of allowing non-citizens with unique skills to use them at US businesses, agencies and universities, instead of a means to hire cheap, barely competent graduates of unaccredited Indian technical institutes.

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 7:11pm

Among the young professionals in my family we have lost a mechanical engineer, an electronics engineer, an architect, a petroleum geologist, a computer science engineer, a secondary teacher, and a physician (MD). All were born, raised, and educated in Michigan and all were recruited away by other states before they crossed the stage to collect their diplomas. Michigan isn't even in the game!

Michigan taxpayers pay enormous costs to maintain REDUNDANT LAYERS OF STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND SCHOOL DISTRICTS. Michigan has over 895 PUBLIC school districts. Compare that with Florida with 74 districts, or Virginia with 104 districts. Similarly, 30 states have NO TOWNSHIP GOVERNMENT. Thirty states with which Michigan competes! The BLOAT in State and municipal government is monumental compared to NON- UNION states.

MICHIGAN clings to the past. Funds are WASTED on REDUNDANCY AND BLOAT IN EDUCATION AND STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT and have been for DECADES. Michigan is a rapidly aging state mired in promises from the past. If you want to see what 60 years of rabidly unionized socialism produces, 'look about you'. Crumbling infrastructure, public schools consistently ranked among the bottom third, and uninspired leadership pandering to past constituencies offer little to young professionals. They have no interest in paying exorbitant taxes to fund massive numbers of public employee senior pensioners. They have enough of their own debt. They have no interest in shouldering more.

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 11:23am

The newest data from Census show Michigan population rose by 1% over the last decade... ? No decline.

Sat, 01/11/2020 - 2:06pm

What matters is how those that leave compare to those that move here, from anywhere, in age, education, and numbers. That those that leave differ than those that don’t is less interesting, since that’s true everywhere. Young well-educated people are more mobile.