The Mormon work ethic
Oct 23rd 2008 | SALT LAKE CITY
From The Economist print edition
Why Utah’s economy is soaring above its neighbours
NOBODY knows quite how the contagion that broke out in Wall Street will affect the rest of America, nor how deep or how long the likely recession will be. What is certain is that some places will suffer more than others. So far Utah, a state best-known for Mormonism and pretty rocks, is looking unusually healthy. “We’ve got a lot to be proud of,” says Jon Huntsman, the governor. “Certainly more than many of our neighbours.”
Indeed, Utah has more to be proud of than any other state in the West. In September its unemployment rate was just 3.5%—less than half of California’s and the second-lowest rate in the region after oil- and gas-rich Wyoming. Last month the Milken Institute declared Provo, a sprawling settlement south of Salt Lake City, America’s best-performing city for technology output and job and wage growth. Salt Lake City itself came third.
Hardly a month goes by without Utah announcing a corporate relocation or a new factory. The state has experienced a minor semiconductor boom in part because of its cheap, coal-fired power. Ogden, until recently a decaying railway town north of Salt Lake City, has quietly become the world centre of winter sports equipment. Mike Dowse, who oversees brands such as Atomic and Salomon for Amer Sports, gives three reasons: “the mountains, the mayor and the money”.
The mountains are the Rockies, which lure young workers who like to go skiing. The mayor is Matthew Godfrey, a business-minded man who has aggressively recruited several companies to Ogden (Mr Huntsman, a former chemicals executive, likes to work the phones, too). The money, which comes partly from the city and partly from the state, is a mixture of relocation grants and tax breaks tied to the creation of well-paying jobs.
Utah’s housing market is relatively healthy, largely because it did not heat up too much in the middle of this decade. In August its foreclosure rate was lower than the national average. Nevada, Utah’s neighbour to the west, had America’s highest rate of foreclosure filings, according to Realtytrac. California had the second-highest rate and Arizona the third. Colorado’s front range, which includes Denver, is also littered with abandoned houses. Such areas have suffered from sharply falling property prices, reduced consumer spending and job losses among construction workers.
Another, hidden, source of strength is Utah’s strange demography. Mormons tend to start families young: the average Utah woman marries at just 22. That means the “echo boom”—the peak of childbearing by baby boomers—took place not around 1990, as in the rest of America, but ten years earlier. One reason unemployment is rising across the West is that a wave of teenagers is crashing onto the job market. Utah, by contrast, has few teenagers and lots of productive people in their late twenties and early thirties. “The timing is pretty good for a recession,” says Pam Perlich of the University of Utah.
The “cultural thing”, as businessmen from out of state delicately refer to Mormonism, helps in other ways. Utah’s almost universal conservatism makes for stable, consensual politics. It took the state legislature just two days last month to plug a $272m hole in the budget. By contrast, California’s budget was 85 days late. Nevada’s politicians are preparing for a nasty fiscal fight next year.
Mormons do not come to work nursing hangovers, and they are inclined to stay put in the promised land rather than pursue better-paying jobs elsewhere. Matthew Donthnier, who is hiring for a new Procter & Gamble plant, has only one complaint about the local workforce: it can be a little difficult to persuade people to toil on Sundays.
Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.