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The Abstract

6 Ways North Carolina Will Be Different in 2050

Skyline of Raleigh in the early evening
City of Raleigh skyline in the early evening. PHOTO BY ROGER WINSTEAD

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Michael Walden, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and extension economist in NC State’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. This post is part of our NC Knowledge List series, which taps into NC State’s expertise on all things North Carolina.

The year 2050 seems distant, but it really isn’t. We’ll be there in only 32 years. But our state will be different. Based on research I did for my new book, North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age: The Tar Heel State in 2050, here are six ways I think our state will have changed in the intervening three-plus decades.

1. There will be more of us. Today there are 10.2 million people living in North Carolina. I predict there will be 13.4 million residents in 2050, a gain of over 3 million. But the gain won’t be from higher birthrates! Instead, the main driver of our population growth will be people moving here from other states.

2. More of us will live in cities. It wasn’t so long ago that the majority of North Carolinians lived in rural areas. But no more – we are now a majority urban state, and the growth of our cities will likely continue in coming decades. Charlotte and the Triangle will double their populations, and Asheville, the Triad, and Wilmington won’t be far behind. Many of our state’s counties will actually lose population between now and mid-century.

3. Farming and retirement will be economic drivers. Technology isn’t going away, and tech growth will be a key part of North Carolina’s future economy. So too will health care and tourism – especially growth in the number of tourists visiting our state from Asia. But farming and retirement will see big boosts, especially in rural regions. North Carolina is already a top farm state, but with advances in nutrition, control of animal waste, and growth in foreign food demand, agribusiness in North Carolina could increase some 80 percent, becoming a $150 billion annual industry by 2050. Likewise, with the baby boom generation rapidly aging into retirement, one-in-five people will be 65 and over at the middle of the century.

4. Manufacturing will move to our basements. 3-D (and soon 4-D) manufacturing allows customized products – like appliances and furniture – to be inexpensively made in small places. So in 2050, if you need a new refrigerator, you may not need to go to an appliance store. Instead, you’ll be able to go to your manufacturing room or basement and make the model you want.

5. Education will be shorter but constant. Technology is rapidly changing occupations – creating new ones, eliminating some and altering the rest. This means in 2050, fewer people will have the same occupation over their work career. More people will train for specific tasks, and the training will be relatively short – maybe a year or two. But, as tasks are constantly remade, workers will have to undergo several training periods over their lifetime. Individuals won’t go to college for four years; instead they will go frequently for short bursts of time.

6. Like food, health care will be cheap. One of the great worldwide accomplishments in the last 100 years has been the decline in food costs, primarily due to the tremendous gains in efficiency by farmers. By 2050, the same will have happened in health care. Continual monitoring of vital conditions, remote access to surgeons – some of them robots – and breakthroughs in medical nutrition will drive down the cost of health care and make it readily and easily available for all.

In 2050 I’ll be 99. I hope I’m around to see if my forecasts come true. If not, send up flares indicating the number of predictions I got right!

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  1. Number 1. Quality of life has always benefited North Carolina’s growth. With an estimated 3.2million people migrating there the numbers look impressive but on the other hand that’s a lot of people. It can be a good thing with a supportive economy which is projected.

    Number 2. With urbanization comes the challeges in infrastructure and higher living cost. Also addressing transportation issues due to increased density will become a major concern in order to mantain good quality of life.

    North Carolinians should weigh the pros and cons of adding 3.2 million people and maintaining balance and quality with that growth.

  2. I’m hopeful that number 6 on the list will come sooner rather than later given the rising costs of healthcare in recent years. Lots of opportunity for entrepreneurs to come in an help drive costs out of the system.

  3. With the world population rising and health care, nutritious food and fresh water becoming scarce, being a central player in health and agribusiness will be keys to NC’s future success. The ideas for manufacturing and population centers is interesting as well — but the entire world will need health care and food just to survive!

  4. Interesting projections into the future. I have gone to a few meetings with the city. It seems there are a group of people who want Raleigh to be that city you talk about in your second point. They are interested in skylines and everything you need in walking distance. But then, I read your fourth point. If people are living in the high risers, I don’t think a basement comes with that kind of housing to make your own refrigerator. Maybe that will change to. Thanks for the dream of the future. It will only be a dream for, too.

  5. You are right about the Tourism and In-migration Industries. Based on IRS data, we forecast that NC will receive a minimum of 304,000 (gross-in) new faces of all ages in 2018. Goes on forever. Adujusted gross income is strong at $63,528. Many will use and to find their way.