The New Urban Demographics: Race Space & Boomer Aging

America’s urban landscape is changing. The familiar distinctions between central cities and suburbs and between the growing Sunbelt and the more stagnant Frostbelt parts of the country are being complicated by new demographic trends, two in particular. The first trend is the sharp rise in immigration to the United States. Each year about one million people, predominantly Latin American and Asian in origin, arrive in the United States, most settling in urban areas. The second trend involves the baby-boomers. This large cohort of 76 million people?often termed “the pig in the python”?is now aging toward the tail of that python. Most boomers will not move but “age in place”?in the suburbs rather than in the city. Both these trends will have important effects on urban America.

Beyond the “White-Black, City-Suburb” Typology

For much of the postwar period, discussions of race and space in urban America revolved around black migration to central cities and “white flight” to the suburbs. The new immigration that is infusing many urban areas with new residents from a variety of backgrounds suggests the need for a new way of thinking about the demographic profiles of cities and suburbs.

The impact of immigration is apparent from a glance at the central counties (those that contain a metropolitan area’s central-city population) showing greatest population gains during 1990?99. The two largest gainers, Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, and Clark County, home of Las Vegas, achieved most of their gains from domestic migration?migrants from other parts of the United States. Yet each of the next five central counties with the greatest population gains?those of the Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Miami, and Dallas metropolitan areas?registered a net loss of domestic migrants. Their gains came entirely from international migration and natural increase. Were it not for immigration, the population of these areas, and of several other large central counties, would register far smaller growth or outright declines. Indeed, areas that do not attract nearly as many immigrants?the central counties of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Buffalo, among others?lost population over the 1990s.

Because conventional city-suburb, black-white demographic profiles do not take adequate account of this new immigration, I offer a new typology of the nation’s large metropolitan areas, those with populations greater than 1 million (see table 1).

The typology begins with a Multiethnic High Immigration category of 12 metropolitan areas with high immigration and a significant Asian or Hispanic presence. The largest of these areas are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Four other categories cover areas that have a primarily black minority presence and those that are mostly white; and within each, those growing at a relatively high pace and those growing only modestly. These four categories are: White-Black Fast-Growing (for example, Atlanta), White-Black Slow-Growing (Detroit), Mostly White Fast-Growing (Las Vegas), and Mostly White Slow-Growing (Pittsburgh).

In metropolitan areas where white-black racial dynamics have been a historically important demographic dimension, the slow-growing areas tend to be in the Rustbelt (New Orleans being an exception), and the fast-growing areas are located in the Southeast, which has now begun to attract back significant numbers of African Americans. Mostly White Fast-Growing areas are located primarily in the West and Midwest (Orlando, Nashville, and West Palm Beach excepted). Mostly White Slow-Growing areas are located in the Northeast and Midwest (Louisville excepted).

Table 2 gives the composite racial profiles for cities and suburbs in each of these five categories. Multiethnic High Immigration areas clearly have the greatest diversity both in their cities and in their suburbs although the suburbs remain majority white. Among the White-Black categories, the slow-growing areas show a lesser tendency toward black suburbanization.

What these statistics show is that the conventional view of cities as being in decline and as having predominantly black populations fails to take into account recent changes in the urban scene. Today some of the nation’s fastest-growing cities are gaining population from domestic migration and are mostly white. And several large multiethnic metropolitan areas house “majority minorities” in their cities and may soon do so in their suburbs as well.

The old “city-suburb” typology also fails to recognize heterogeneous growth patterns within the suburbs. Many inner and even middle suburbs are experiencing demographic dynamics similar to those of the cities. This is especially the case in some of the largest “melting pot” metropolitan areas. A look at the immigration and domestic migration dynamics for counties within the greater Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York CMSAs (Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas) shows that it is not just the inner counties whose gains are attributable solely to international migration. Of the 29 counties in the greater New York CMSA, fully 20 registered negative domestic migration during 1990?99 and achieved their only migration growth from immigration from abroad. The same goes for 4 of the 5 counties in the Los Angeles CMSA and for 7 of the 10 counties of the San Francisco CMSA.

The heterogeneity of suburbs was already apparent in 1990. Figure 1 compares the Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit metropolitan areas. The racially diverse suburbs of Los Angeles, with their infusion of immigrants and new ethnic minorities, contrast with the suburbs of Atlanta, which show moderate racial heterogeneity, and those of slower-growing Detroit, where historical racial antagonisms keep the divide between city and suburbs fairly sharp.

Suburban growth patterns continue to favor the outer suburbs. Of the 30 counties that made the fastest gains via net domestic migration during 1990?99, most that are in metropolitan areas lie in the outer suburban reaches of fast-growing metropolitan areas such as Denver, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Houston. Even in the fast-growing, less dense portions of the country, an outer suburban residence remains popular.

Aging Boomers, Cities, and Suburbs

Since the baby-boom generation began entering grade school in the 1950s, it has been followed closely by marketers, policymakers, and political consultants. But the boomers’ sharp disengagement from the residential aspects of city life seems to have escaped the notice of urban watchers.

The aging of the nation’s first suburban generation will increase substantially the number of households in their 50s and early 60s over the next 10 years. Early boomers?born between 1945 and 1955?will be making the transition from empty-nesters to preretirees. Many will retire from regular jobs. Some will leave their suburban homes. But most will “age in place” or perhaps make a local move.

The late boomers?those born between 1955 and 1964?will still be in their prime career and prime earnings ages. Some will be looking to upgrade their housing, again in the same local area. They will have fewer children living at home than did earlier generations at the same age?and therefore more freedom in their location decisions.

Some observers have expressed the hope that these huge boomer generations might be a source for central-city revival. But the hope seems unrealistic, given the current location of this “suburban generation.” With the exception of Hispanics, baby-boomers, now in the 35-54 age groups, are less likely to reside in the city than either today’s elderly or adults now in their 20s and early 30s.

In fact, elderly growth patterns during the 1990s show that the “graying of the suburbs” is well under way. Of the 30 counties with fastest-gaining elderly populations over the 1990s, most are either in nonmetropolitan areas or in middle or outer suburban counties of fast-growing metropolitan areas. Much of this simply reflects the aging-in-place of elderly who have moved to these fast-growing metropolitan areas during their lifetimes.

The projected gains in elderly over the next 25 years will occur in the Mostly White Fast-Growing and White-Black Fast-Growing areas discussed earlier. While some of this growth will be attributable to retirement migration to high amenity areas of the Mountain West and South, most will result from the aging-in-place of boomers who relocated there during their working lives or at least before retirement.

This suggests somewhat different patterns of growth for the new immigrant minorities than for largely white or white and black baby-boomers. Much of the boomer growth and, hence, the projected elderly gains will be in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas and in regions of the country that are not capturing new immigrant minorities. Within metropolitan areas the better-off and healthy “yuppie elderly” will tend to locate on the periphery, and the more disadvantaged segments of the older population will reside closer in.

Central cities and inner suburbs in metropolitan regions that have suffered economic and demographic declines in recent decades will continue to house disproportionate numbers of the nation’s disadvantaged elderly?older elderly people, widows and widowers, female-headed households, those with incomes below or near the poverty level and relatively high levels of disability. As they continue to age in place, they will pose special challenges for local institutions that are often the most financially strapped.

But although the aging of the baby-boomers will have different effects for cities and suburbs, dealing with the social services, health care, and transportation needs of a faster-growing senior population will prove a challenge to cities and suburbs alike.

New Forces at Work

The advent of new immigrants and the aging of the baby-boomers will surely complicate both urban and suburban race-ethnic and aging demographic dynamics.

The demographics of Los Angeles provide just one example of how the two countervailing trends could operate. As a result of the successive outmigration of whites, juxtaposed with the continued waves of immigration of new ethnic minorities, Los Angeles County’s elderly population is still majority white, its working-aged population is only about one-third white, and its child population is predominantly Hispanic and other racial and ethnic groups. Reflecting their age, the growing racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles will be concerned with issues of affordable housing, good schools, and neighborhoods conducive to the raising of children. And, reflecting their age, whites are likely to be more concerned with health and social support services for an aging dependent population. Whether the same kind of “racial generation gap” will occur in other melting pot metropolitan areas remains to be seen.

Whatever else the new urban population profiles show, the old models of dealing with cities and suburbs will need to be revised to adapt to new demographic forces in America today.