Rather, fewer immigrants would lead to diminished national growth and a stagnant labor force
Immigration has become a dominant issue in America, as the Trump administration continues to curtail the flow of both legal and undocumented immigrants. Now, newly released Census Bureau population projections through the year 2060 provide an assessment of what differing levels of immigration would mean for the nation’s demographic future. These are the first projections in more than a decade that lay out how changing immigration flows would impact the nation’s future population size, its race-ethnic makeup, and its age structure.
The projections show that the current level of immigration is essential for our nation’s future growth, especially in sustaining the younger population. Moreover, despite suggestions to the contrary from the administration, lowering immigration levels further will not keep the nation from becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Even if the number of migrants was reduced to zero, the percentage of the population that identifies as a nonwhite race or ethnic group would continue to rise.
Immigration is essential to counter sharp declines in growth
Just how much do different immigration levels affect future U.S. population growth? The new census projections through 2060 provide four scenarios about immigration 1. The one used in existing census projections is termed the “main” scenario, and assumes that immigration to the U.S. will follow the trends seen from 2011 to 2015. The other three scenarios are: 1) a “high immigration” scenario, which assumes a 50% increase in immigration going forward; 2) a “low immigration” scenario, which assumes a roughly 50% decrease; and 3) a “zero immigration” scenario, which assumes no new immigration to the U.S., but does allow for out-migration from the country.
The projected populations over the 40-year period between 2020 and 2060 indicate a wide range of outcomes. The “main” immigration scenario would lead to population growth of 22%, from 333 million to 404 million. This is less than half of the 46% growth observed over the previous 40-year period, and reflects the fact that—compared to the past—the nation’s aging population will be experiencing higher death rates and more modest fertility rates.
The results of the three alternative scenarios are varied. The 2060 U.S. population size in the high-, low-, and zero-immigration scenarios is 447 million, 376 million and 320 million, respectively—representing growth rates of 33%, 14%, and -2%. In the zero-immigration scenario, the population begins to decline in 2035 due to a combination of more deaths than births and that emigration from the U.S. would not be countered by immigration into it.
Zero immigration would be demographically unsustainable and unlikely to occur. However, even the low-immigration scenario would lead to tepid population growth rates—in the range of 0.2% to 0.3%—over the final 20 years of the projection period.
Diversity will rise under all immigration scenarios
Much of the current political discourse equates immigration with a rise in racial and ethnic diversity. While it is true that a large share of immigrants are people of color (especially those arriving from Latin America, Asia, and Africa), the new projections show that the U.S. will continue to become more racially diverse under all migration scenarios, even with zero additional immigration.
A major reason for this is the aging and projected decline of the population of whites who do not identify with another race or ethnic group. In 2018, the median age of this population was 44, compared to 38 for the nation as a whole, 29.5 for the Latino or Hispanic population, and 21 for those of two or more races. With a rising number of deaths compared to births, the older white population will experience a natural decrease in all projection scenarios, which immigration flows will not counter.
The other race-ethnic groups will show mostly positive population contributions over each projection scenario. The largest will occur for the Latino or Hispanic population, which will increase between 18 million and 64 million over the 40-year period, depending on the scenario. Births from existing Latino or Hispanic residents will lead to a natural increase in this population even under low- and zero-migration scenarios.
All other race and ethnic groups contribute to projected population gains with the exception of Asian Americans, whose size is reduced under the zero-immigration scenario. In this case, Asian emigration from the U.S. is not countered by a natural increase. It is noteworthy that in both the low- and zero-immigration scenarios, persons identifying with two or more racial groups contribute more to projected population gains than Black or Asian American residents.
No matter the scenario, the U.S. will experience a rise in the share of the total population that identifies as a nonwhite race or ethnic group.
As previously reported, the “main” immigration scenario shows that in 2045, more than 50% of the U.S. population will identify as a nonwhite race or ethnic group, rising to 56% in 2060. In the high-immigration scenario, the 50% tipping point occurs in 2041; in the low-immigration scenario, it is 2049. Even in the zero-immigration scenario, the share of the U.S. population that identifies as a nonwhite race or ethnic group will rise to 49% by 2060.
Because all nonwhite race and ethnic groups are, on average, younger than white residents, their shares of the under-30 population are even larger than for the population as a whole. More than half of the under-30 population is projected to identify with a nonwhite group by the year 2024 in the main immigration scenario; in 2022 for the high-immigration scenario; and in 2025 for the low-immigration scenario. In the zero-immigration scenario, the share of the under-30 population that identifies as a nonwhite race or ethnic group exceeds 50% in 2032 and all years thereafter.
While shrinking in size, the white population is projected to comprise a larger share of the total population than any other single racial or ethnic group in all scenarios. The next largest group in all projections is the Latino or Hispanic population, which is projected to comprise around a quarter of the total population and roughly 30% of the under-30 population by 2060.
Immigration is needed to bolster younger population growth
The aging of the U.S. population over the next decade will be propelled by the large baby boomer generation entering its senior years. Meanwhile, the younger population will be growing far more tepidly. This aging will be especially acute over the 2020 to 2035 period—as a result, immigration will make an important difference in how much the nation’s youth (under-18) and primary labor force (ages 18 to 64) populations grow.
Under the high-immigration scenario, the youth population would grow by 9% and the labor force population would grow by 8% from 2020 to 2035. Both populations would grow by a modest 4% if current immigration patterns persist. A low- or zero-immigration scenario, however, would lead to stagnating growth or declines for these populations, while the 65-and-older population experiences a projected growth rate exceeding 36%.
The short-term implications of lower immigration levels could lead to noticeable labor force shortages. The longer-term impact is increased age dependency: the extent to which the retirement-age population will be dependent on younger workers for support. In 2020, the old-age dependency ratio (a measure of age dependency found by dividing 65-and-older population by the 18- to 64-year-old population) is 28. But as the population ages over the next 40 years, and age dependency rises, immigration will make a difference. In 2060, the dependency ratio can vary from 39 (under the high-immigration scenario) to a whopping 48 under the zero-immigration scenario. The latter would mean there would be only two working-age persons for every retiree.
The necessity of immigration to the nation’s future
The Census Bureau’s alternative population projections make plain that continued immigration at current levels—at a minimum—is necessary to maintain the nation’s growth. With a rapidly aging native-born population, immigration will ensure growth—especially among the youth and labor force populations. Any appreciable lowering of immigration levels will lead to tepid national population growth, potentially negative growth in the youth population, and extreme age dependency.
It is also important to note that the nation will continue to become more racially and ethnically diverse under all immigration scenarios. This is a function of the country’s already large and youthful nonwhite populations, and the projected aging and decreased size of the white population.
Any political rhetoric suggesting that reduced immigration will make the nation “whiter” flies in the face of demographic evidence. In fact, the main reason the United States is growing more rapidly than most other industrialized counties stems from its healthy immigration levels over the past four decades. The Census Bureau’s projections suggest that similar or higher immigration levels will be necessary for the nation to grow and prosper in the decades ahead.
Report Produced by Brookings Metro
- Further details about these immigration scenarios are available in the report that accompanied this data release. While the assumptions refer to levels of immigration to the U.S., the annual net international migration (in- minus out-migration) levels associated with these scenarios range from: 1 to 1.1 million for the main scenario; 1.7 to 1.8 million for the high-immigration scenario; 500,000 to 700,000 for the low-immigration scenario; and -150,000 to -450,000 for the zero-immigration scenario.