INDIANOLA, Iowa—One side of the generational collision that could rattle American politics for decades was on vivid display at the big tea party rally headlined by Sarah Palin here last weekend.
The crowd that assembled beneath a driving rain was ardent, mostly older, and virtually all-white; you could count the number of minorities on one hand. Across the stage, the sponsors had stretched a banner listing their priorities: It began with “Defend Our Border” and “Support Smaller Government.” Each time a speaker pledged to slash federal spending and taxes, cheers erupted from the soggy field. A local talk-radio host roused the crowd by railing against illegal immigrants.
In both message and audience, the rally encapsulated the sharp move to the right among older whites resistant to activist government and uneasy about the rapid demographic change transforming the United States.
Although it hasn’t announced itself as visibly, an equally powerful trend is gathering momentum nearby in Des Moines, where half of the public-school students are now nonwhite. Statewide, nearly one-fifth of Iowa’s children are minorities, up from about one-tenth in 2000.
Those striking changes capture the other major demographic force reshaping American politics: the rise of a huge, heavily nonwhite generation of youths that needs public investments in education and health care to ascend to the middle class. The contrast between their needs and the hardening antigovernment attitudes of the aging baby boom could sentence the nation to sustained conflict between the brown and the gray, unless the United States forges a new social consensus between them.
Census data show a widening demographic divide between America’s youth and senior populations. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey tracks what he calls the “cultural generation gap”—the difference in the white share of the population among children (under 18) and seniors (over 65). In 2000, whites comprised about 61 percent of America’s children and almost 84 percent of its seniors, for a 23-point gap. By 2010, the gap had widened to about 26 points, because whites still comprise 80 percent of seniors, but plummeted to less than 54 percent of children. As recently as 1980, the difference between the white share of the senior and the youth populations was only about half that big.
This change’s principal engine is the young and burgeoning Hispanic population, which is rapidly dispersing beyond the traditional big-city immigration magnets. As a result, the cultural generation gap is not only deepening but also broadening to affect more places. Although the senior population remains at least 60 percent white in every state except Hawaii, minorities now constitute a majority of the under-18 population in 10 states and more than 40 percent in 12 more, Frey’s figures show. That current is washing over states not previously touched by diversity, including Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah. Indeed, since 2000 the minority share of the youth population has increased in every state. “You have a whole generation of young people … whose peers are not majority white any more,” Frey says.
Locally, this change often produces tensions first in the schools. In too many newly diversifying places, educators are burying their heads “praying for the white kids to come back,” worries Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor children.
But in some communities, farsighted officials are responding creatively. Steve Joel, the school superintendent in Lincoln, Neb., speaks for many Midwesterners when he acknowledges that the district’s growing diversity is something “quite frankly, the community is not used to.” But Joel has dispatched cultural liaisons to all schools “trying to learn the differences kids have from the inside-out, without losing sight of quality of education.” Iowa is confronting its daunting achievement gaps between white and minority students with a program encouraging local officials to customize instruction for low-performing kids. “When you hit this sort of diversity … it forces the education system to adapt its tactics,” says Jason Glass, the state Education Department director.
Nationally, the conflict between the brown and gray arises partly over immigration policy but primarily over government spending. Aging whites now provide huge electoral margins for a Republican Party committed to retrenching government, while minorities preponderantly back a Democratic Party defending public investment. It’s telling that even the budget cuts the two parties have agreed on so far largely protected entitlements (which mostly benefit seniors) and squeezed discretionary programs (which offer more for young people).
Demography offers no break from these pressures. Minorities, for the first time, will likely make up a majority of newborns this year. Frey calculates that the number of people in their childbearing years is falling for whites and rising for minorities. That means the browning of the youth population will accelerate, even as the white share of seniors declines only slowly.
The irony is that security for the gray requires opportunity for the brown: Unless America can equip its young people to obtain good-paying jobs, Social Security and Medicare will face increasing financial strain. As usual, Americans will rise or fall together, even if no one acknowledged that inescapable interdependence from the tea party stage last weekend.
This article appears in the September 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.