‘Brown and Gray’ Dynamics

New Census data reveal divergent age profiles for a youthful population of color and an aging white population.

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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 9, 2015, 11:06 a.m.

The demo­graph­ic re­volu­tion trans­form­ing the U.S. be­longs to the young.

That’s the un­mis­tak­able mes­sage from the latest pop­u­la­tion es­tim­ates that the Census Bur­eau re­leased late last month.

The Census found that along every rung of the gen­er­a­tion­al lad­der, the young­er the age group, the lar­ger the share of the pop­u­la­tion com­prised by people of col­or. And that could have huge im­plic­a­tions for policies fo­cused on early child­hood and chil­dren.

“In the next sev­er­al dec­ades ,we are go­ing to be­come much more di­verse as we ad­vance [in di­versity] from the young­er ages to the older ages,” says demo­graph­er Wil­li­am Frey, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of the re­cent book Di­versity Ex­plo­sion: How New Ra­cial Demo­graph­ics are Re­mak­ing Amer­ica.

“So all kinds of policies that deal with edu­ca­tion, with young­er people in the work­force, with fam­il­ies, with the chil­dren of young fam­il­ies, all of those sup­port sys­tems are go­ing to have to change, be­cause most of them were de­veloped at a time when the young­er pop­u­la­tion was very dif­fer­ent. It was mostly white, and there was the idea that [a fam­ily] was an ‘Oz­zie and Har­riet’ fam­ily even if there wasn’t one,” Frey says.

In that trans­ition, the Census num­bers show the na­tion cross­ing an­oth­er pop­u­la­tion mile­stone: As of Ju­ly 1, 2014, kids of col­or, for the first time rep­res­ent an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity (50.22 per­cent) of Amer­ic­ans young­er than age 5, and al­most half (49.1 per­cent) of those ages 5-9.

As the first chart at left shows, the pop­u­la­tion of col­or then de­clines across each older five-year co­hort that the Census tracks. Ini­tially, the de­cline oc­curs only slowly: the non­white share of the pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeds 40 per­cent for each five-year group through age 44. But in older groups, the non-white share dwindles much more quickly: minor­it­ies rep­res­ent less than a third of Amer­ic­ans ages 50-54, only about one-fourth of those aged 65-69, and ex­actly one-fifth of those ages 80-84.

That steep­er slope largely re­flects the im­pact of the fed­er­al laws that severely lim­ited im­mig­ra­tion in­to the U.S. between 1924 and 1965, when Con­gress eased the re­stric­tions.

Whites present the in­verse pro­file. Whites com­prise their largest share of the pop­u­la­tion among the very old­est seni­ors ages 85 and older: 82 per­cent. But then the white pop­u­la­tion share de­clines at every five-year rung down the gen­er­a­tion­al lad­der. Whites fall be­low three-fourths of the pop­u­la­tion in the 60-64 age group, slip be­low three-fifths in the 40-44 co­hort, dip to 51 per­cent in the 5-9 group, and fall be­low a ma­jor­ity in the un­der-5 cat­egory.

Frey notes that not only are whites de­clin­ing as a share of the youth pop­u­la­tion, but the ab­so­lute num­ber of young­er whites also is fall­ing. Us­ing the latest Census re­lease, he has cal­cu­lated that from 2000-2014, the num­ber of whites young­er than 20 has de­clined in the na­tion over­all, in 46 states, in 88 per­cent of Amer­ica’s counties, and in 84 of the 100 largest met­ro­pol­it­an areas. Non­whites already com­prise a ma­jor­ity of the 20-and-young­er pop­u­la­tion in 13 states, 37 of those met­ro­pol­it­an areas, and about one-fifth of the na­tion’s counties, Frey cal­cu­lated.

As if as­cend­ing on an es­cal­at­or, today’s bur­geon­ing non­white youth pop­u­la­tion will stead­ily trans­late in­to a grow­ing share of older age co­horts over the next sev­er­al dec­ades, Frey also notes. “As we move these pro­jec­tions ahead, what we see for the un­der-5 pop­u­la­tion today is go­ing to just move up the age struc­ture,” he says. In fact, the pace of change should ac­cel­er­ate be­cause the large non­white pres­ence in the un­der-10 pop­u­la­tion today means that those com­munit­ies will likely rep­res­ent a ma­jor­ity of the fam­il­ies form­ing, and bear­ing chil­dren, 20 and 25 years from now. “When you look at the people who will be form­ing house­holds, it will make this [change] even more prom­in­ent,” Frey says.

Viewed from an­oth­er angle, these dy­nam­ics frame a strik­ingly di­ver­gent age pro­file between a pre­dom­in­antly youth­ful minor­ity pop­u­la­tion, and an in­creas­ingly aging white pop­u­la­tion—what’s be­com­ing known as the “Brown and the Gray.”

Kids young­er than 10 com­prise al­most 17 per­cent of Amer­ica’s total non­white pop­u­la­tion, com­pared to just 10 per­cent of whites. Al­most 3-in-10 minor­it­ies are young­er than 18, com­pared to about 2-in-10 whites. Nearly half of all non­white Amer­ic­ans (48.8 per­cent) are young­er than 30, com­pared to only about 1-in-3 whites (34.4 per­cent).

Con­versely, 41 per­cent of all whites are 50 years and older, com­pared to just 23 per­cent of non-whites. Seni­ors 65 and older rep­res­ent about 18 per­cent of all whites, more than double their share (8.3 per­cent) among minor­it­ies.

A ma­jor im­plic­a­tion of these changes, Frey says, is that at­tract­ing and provid­ing op­por­tun­ity to minor­ity fam­il­ies will be­come in­creas­ingly im­port­ant to not only in tra­di­tion­al strong­holds of di­versity such as the South­w­est, but also in Mid­west­ern states fore­cast to face steady aging and de­cline of their white pop­u­la­tion.

“There’s a large num­ber of states where we’ve already had this [youth] di­versity—Cali­for­nia, Texas, Nevada, New Mex­ico—but the rub­ber is also go­ing to hit the road in the middle of the coun­try where we haven’t seen this very much be­fore,” Frey says.

These find­ings come from the Census Bur­eau’s Pop­u­la­tion Es­tim­ates Pro­gram, an re­port pro­duced an­nu­ally to up­date the res­ults of the decen­ni­al Census. Over­all, as of Ju­ly 1, 2014, the Census es­tim­ates the na­tion’s total pop­u­la­tion at 318.9 mil­lion, with non-His­pan­ic whites com­pris­ing 62 per­cent (197.9 mil­lion) and non­whites 38 per­cent (121 mil­lion).

Libby Isenstein and Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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