Originally posted on Pewresearch.org
Two Dramas in Slow Motion
Demographic transformations are dramas in slow motion. America is in the midst of two right now. Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.
The Pew Research Center tracks these transformations with public opinion surveys and demographic and economic analyses. Our new book, The Next America, draws on this research to paint a data-rich portrait of the many ways our nation is changing and the challenges we face in the decades ahead.
Let’s start with what demographers call an “age pyramid.” Each bar represents a five year age cohort; with those ages 0-4 on the bottom and those ages 85 and older on the top. In every society since the start of history, whenever you broke down any population this way, you’d always get a pyramid.
But from 1960 to 2060, our pyramid will turn into a rectangle. We’ll have almost as many Americans over age 85 as under age 5. This is the result of longer life spans and lower birthrates. It’s uncharted territory, not just for us, but for all of humanity. And while it’s certainly good news over the long haul for the sustainability of the earth’s resources, it will create political and economic stress in the shorter term, as smaller cohorts of working age adults will be hard-pressed to finance the retirements of larger cohorts of older ones.
America’s Racial Tapestry Is Changing
At the same time our population is going gray, we’re also becoming multi-colored. In 1960, the population of the United States was 85% white; by 2060, it will be only 43% white. We were once a black and white country. Now, we’re a rainbow.
Our intricate new racial tapestry is being woven by the more than 40 million immigrants who have arrived since 1965, about half of them Hispanics and nearly three-in-ten Asians.
Because these tranformations happen tick by tock, without anyone announcing them with a drum roll or press conference, they are sometimes hard to perceive.
But every so often societies experience “aha” moments, when the change is right there in plain sight. We had several such moments in early 2014, as three iconic American brands, Coke, Chevy and Cheerios, rolled out ads during the Super Bowl and Olympics that were aimed at what one voice-over called “the new us.”
Product advertisers aren’t in the business of making political statements. They’re certainly not in the business of making enemies. They must have known some of their images – interracial families, same-sex parents, “America the Beautiful” sung in several languages – would disturb some of their customers. But they also do their market research and look at their numbers. They know how fast the country is changing.
Immigration Is Driving Our Demographic Makeover
But some things don’t change. No matter where they come from, immigrants are strivers. They’re optimists. And they tend to have a lot of kids. Our immigrant stock – that’s immigrants and their children – is projected to make up about 37% of our population by mid-century, the highest share in our history.
But understand: this isn’t new. We’ve always been a nation of settlers and immigrants. In this regard, the middle of the 20th century wasn’t the norm, it was the outlier.
Intermarriage Blurs Labels
Here’s an interesting question: By 2050, will our racial categories still make much sense? These days our old labels are having trouble keeping up with our new weddings. A half century ago racial intermarriage was illegal in a third of the states and a gasp-inducing taboo just about everywhere else. Today, nearly one-in-six newlyweds marry across racial or ethnic lines.
Changing Perception of ‘Mixed Race’
More than a quarter of Hispanic and Asian newlyweds “marry out,” as do one-in-six blacks and one-in-ten whites. Whites are still the largest race group, so even though they “marry out” at lower rates, they still account for 70% of all interracial marriages.
By mid-century, what will we call the children of interracial marriages? Today we aren’t even sure what to call our president. We do know this: In many cultures and societies through history, being mixed race – being a “mutt” as Obama sometimes calls himself – has meant being an outcast. In today’s America, judging by those Super Bowl ads or today’s celebrities, the norms are changing and the stigma receding.
Today’s Celebrities Reflect America’s Demographic Shifts
You probably know the names of these celebrities. Do you know their racial and ethnic ancestry?