US white population declines and Generation ‘Z-Plus’ is minority white, census shows

From the neck down view of young afro black man holding a smart phone, tapping the scree outdoor in the city - technology, social network, communication concept
Editor's note:

William H. Frey’s latest book, “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America,” was released earlier this year.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s release of race and age statistics for 2017 points to two noteworthy milestones about the nation’s increasingly aging white and growing diverse population. First, for the first time since the Census Bureau has released these annual statistics, they show an absolute decline in the nation’s white non-Hispanic population—accelerating a phenomenon that was not projected to occur until the next decade.

Second, the new numbers show that for the first time there are more children who are minorities than who are white, at every age from zero to nine. This means we are on the cusp of seeing the first minority white generation, born in 2007 and later, which perhaps we can dub Generation “Z-Plus.”

Together these new data suggest that a signature feature of U.S. demographic change in the 21st century is the aging and decline of the white population, along with population growth among young minorities to counterbalance the trend.

White population decline

America’s white population has been increasing since the first census was taken in 1790. Table 1 shows the change in the non-Hispanic white population using data from the censuses of 1970 to 2010, and annual population estimates for 2011 to 2017, based on the recent release. These new numbers show, for the first time, an absolute decline in the nation’s white population of more than 9,000 whites between 2015 and 2016 and more than 31,000 whites between 2016 and 2017. (These new estimates revised earlier census estimates, which showed white gains between 2015 and 2016.)

Table 1

Although these annual white declines are extremely modest (of -0.005 and -0.016 percent in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively), they are an early harbinger of the long-term trend that the Census Bureau projected previously this year. Those projections showed the white population declining after 2023.

This is indicative of a general aging of the white population, which means proportionately fewer white women in their childbearing years, and an excess of deaths over births (a natural decrease). The recent downsizing of the white population could reflect post-recession-related fertility declines in the white population, leading to an inflation of white natural decrease to its highest levels of the last six years. The past year also showed a downturn in white immigration.

The good news for the nation is that white aging and potential future declines will be countered by gains in racial minorities. These populations increased by 4.7 million in the two years that the white population declined, including gains of 2.4 million among Hispanics, 1.1 million among Asians, and 1.2 million among all other races, according to the new estimates. Moreover, these gains are especially important in offsetting white declines that are occurring among the nation’s youth.

A new “minority white” generation

A second noteworthy finding from the new census estimates is that, for the first time, minorities outnumber whites nationally for each age under 10 (see Figure 2). While earlier estimates revealed “minority white” status for some of these youthful ages, this is now solidly the case for individuals born in each year since 2007.

Figure 1: Under age 10 United States population is minority white

Hence, this generation, which might be called Generation Z-Plus, is the first truly minority white generation, at 49.6 percent white, where 26 percent of its members are Hispanics, 13.6 percent African-Americans, and nearly 10 percent include Asians and persons of two or more races.

Frey Fig. 2

Of course, there is variation in Gen Z-Plus’s racial profile across the country. Notably, they are now minority white in 15 states, including Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, and Nevada, plus the District of Columbia. In each of the latter states, the population under age 10 is less than 35 percent white (Download Table A). At the other extreme, 17 states—largely in New England, the Midwest, and Mountain West—house Gen Z-Plus populations that are more than two-thirds white. This population is minority white in 43 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas, including in Los Angeles, where less than 20 percent of 0-9-year-olds are white (Download Table A).

Declines of white youth

The rise of the minority white Generation Z-Plus has a lot to do with a steady decline in whites among America’s youth since 2000. This occurred as more white young people entered adulthood than were born or immigrated to the U.S. However, this trend was countered to some degree by a growing youthful minority population.

Nationally, whites under the age of 10 sustained a loss of 1.2 million between 2010 and 2017, according to the new estimates. This loss of youthful whites is fairly pervasive, occurring in 43 states and 81 of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.(Download Table B) This trend has also taken place in over four-fifths of the nation’s 3,100 counties (see Map 1). The parts of the country that have not seen white child declines tend to be places that have attracted recent white migrants, including younger segments of the white population. The states of Texas (especially Houston, San Antonio and Austin), Washington (Seattle), as well as North and South Dakota are in this category.

Frey Map 1

Yet these white declines are countered by gains in minorities. Between 2010 and 2017 the under age 10 population showed gains among minorities of nearly one million—lessening the nationwide young child decline to just 276,000. Minorities have not stopped all geographic areas from child population decline but they contributed to gains in the under age 10 populations for 17 states and the District of Columbia, 48 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, and over 800 counties. Some of these gains are attributable to immigration, but in fact, only 38 percent of total minority growth is due to immigration with the remainder attributable to natural increase. Nonetheless, it is clear that younger minority populations will be significant contributors to the nation’s youth in light of the overall aging of the white population.

These new census estimates underscore important demographic mega-trends that will impact the country’s future. As older baby boomers retire, there will be an increasing need for younger generations to contribute to a vibrant, productive labor force. Clearly the emerging minority white Generation Z-Plus—small in size and born since the onset of the Great Recession—will play a key role. This underscores the urgency of investing in the well-being of America’s racially diverse youth and their parents in the years and decades ahead.