The Census Projects Minority Surge

August 18, 2008

The Census Bureau’s new projections through 2050 portend a more accelerated transformation of the nation’s population on race-ethnic dimensions than was previously supposed. These new projections show that the minority majority tipping point – the year when the white population dips to below half of the total – will occur in 2042, 8 years sooner than in the Bureau’s projections just 4 years ago. By 2050 the nation will be 46 percent white, down from 66 percent today, and 30 percent Hispanic, double the 15 percent we have today. Granted, this seems like a long way off and is subject to the vagaries of immigration shifts, economic conditions and the like. Yet one can uncover more immediate implications from the new projections that are worth keeping an eye on.

First, the younger parts of the population “tip” much sooner than the older generations. For instance, by 2021, whites in the pre-grade school population will be the minority. And there will be successive blending and tipping of older age groups over the course of the next 40 plus years (See Figure 1).

The earliest shifts in the adult population will be seen for young adults, 18-29, who will become majority minority in 2028. This trend will have impacts on the “young vote” in presidential elections already in the next decade, as they will move from 60 percent white in 2008 to 53 percent white and nearly a quarter Hispanic in 2020. They stand in contrast with the 65+ year old population, which will stay at least 76 percent white over this period (See Figure 2).

Indeed, each of this year’s presidential candidates’ demographic appeal is strongest to one of these groups: Obama for the younger multiethnic generation of voters; McCain for the older, largely white generation. In this respect, these candidates’ natural constituencies represent demographic bookends, spanning the new projection’s timeframe.

The relative importance of age and child dependency for each race is vividly painted with these projections. In each future year, whites are “older” than any other group. So for them the burdens of seniors to the white working aged population become larger than the burdens of children as early as 2020 (See Figure 3). In contrast, the child dependency ratio for Hispanics will stay well above age dependency over the entire 42-year projection period. For Asians, there is a crossover from greater child dependency to greater age dependency in 2040.

Thus politicians even today face a challenge in addressing age-related concerns of different race-ethnic groups. Whites, and states where whites dominate the population, will be much more concerned about issues affecting health care and retirement security. Hispanics, and areas where they are large voting blocs, will be more interested in education, family and child-friendly policies.

These projections also point up the huge significance of the baby boom generation for changes in the workforce population and the growth of seniors. Between now and 2030 the aging out of the largely white baby boomers will contribute substantially to the diversity in the working-aged population, as they become displaced by minority groups (See Figure 4). The working-aged population will lose 11 million whites, and at the same time gain 34 million Hispanics and other minorities.

During the same period, boomers will contribute to the gains of the senior population (and aging of our population generally). The numeric gains for the 65+ population accelerate during this period, with the senior population growing by 16 million before 2020 and another 17 million before 2030. Once again, the boomers are the 800 pound gorilla in our national aging, just as they were in their younger years.

Clearly the aging out of boomers from the labor force years, and their displacement by Hispanics and other minorities, bring both opportunities and challenges for incorporating new more ethnically diverse generations into a growing 21 Century labor force. At the same time, the glut of boomers aging into what have heretofore been thought of as retirement years will need to be paid attention to with respect to the costs of health care and social security, which will continue to escalate.

These projections are simply that: an exercise that plays out conservative, fact-based assumptions about our future population changes. But the dynamic portrait they paint of an increasingly minority driven youth and working aged population, and a growing white boomer dominated senior population, is startling. It will dramatically affect policies from cradle to grave sooner than many think.