Skip to main content
sotu2015_001
Op-Ed

State of the Union Positions Our Diverse Next Generation as a Domestic Policy Priority

William H. Frey

Now that the economy seems to be improving and policy initiatives shift to longer term priorities, it is gratifying to see the president’s State of the Union address emphasize elements of what needs to be our key domestic policy priority: the economic success of the nation’s next generation. Promoting wider access to community college, support for child care and greater parental leave are steps toward ensuring that today’s children and tomorrow’s working-age citizens have the opportunities to become members of a growing middle class, to raise healthy families and to contribute to the nation’s economic well-being.

While providing for the next generation’s success is always a laudable goal, it is especially imperative now as the nation faces a dramatic demographic transformation. As I indicate in my book, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America, the country is on the cusp of huge change.

One element of this change is the rapid aging of the nation’s population. New census projections show that between now and 2030 the population over age 65 will swell by 55 percent. In contrast, the primary working-age population will grow by only 5 percent and our child population will grow by just 4 percent. Because a larger retired older generation will depend on the tax base contributions and productivity of the smaller growing younger population, we are facing an unprecedented age dependency that adversely impacts funding for government programs like Social Security and Medicare and robs the labor force of a huge talent pool as members of the baby boom continue to retire.

This makes the most important element of our demographic transformation the one occurring at younger ages, among children and young adults. It involves the rapid growth of youthful racial minorities—Hispanics, blacks and others—who will replace their aging white counterparts. The younger ranks of the population are already experiencing white population losses. Racial minorities now account for all of the gains in the nation’s children and younger labor force population; and by 2030 will account for all of its labor force gains. By 2027, more than half of our young adult labor force will be racial minorities.

This diversity boom is good news for the nation because otherwise we would be facing the “declining labor force/extreme aging” scenario now plaguing Japan, Italy and several other European countries. It can allow us to compete with other growing economies in all parts of the world. But because we too have an aging population, it is imperative that we prepare this next multicultural, multiracial generation for middle class jobs and upward mobility.

We have yet to meet the challenge. It involves providing access to quality schooling from pre-K to postsecondary programs for a diverse younger generation who are too often mired in under-resourced segregated public school systems and lack the finances or guidance to attend two- or four-year colleges that serve as pathways to middle class jobs. Moreover, many come from families who, while holding high aspirations for their children, are struggling economically; more than half of today’s public school students are in low income families. My own projections show that if the educational attainment for today’s young adult Hispanic, black and other minorities remains constant, we will see declining, rather than rising, proportions of college graduates.

In essence, the demographics are clear. If our aging, low growth labor force society is to prosper, we need to provide today’s multicultural child and young family populations the wherewithal to succeed. If so, we can sustain our leadership in the 21st century’s global economy. If not, we will have squandered the opportunity to convert our unique asset, the diversity boom, into a productive investment.

Get daily updates from Brookings