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As America ages, generational gap between whites and minorities widens

ImmigrationMinority GroupsMigrationSocial IssuesPoliticsAsiaPetroleum Industry
New Census Bureau data show widening racial generational gap in America
Whites are bulk of the elderly population, but minorities account for an increasingly large share of youth
The growing demographic divide between the races presents significant social and economic challenges

As the U.S. population ages and becomes more racially diverse, the country is seeing a widening demographic gap between older whites and young minorities -- a shift with significant social and economic implications for the future.

Non-Hispanic white Americans made up almost 79% of the country's population of people older than 65 years old as of last July, but the white share of residents under 15 years of age slipped further to 51.8%, according to an analysis of new Census Bureau data released Thursday. By comparison, Latinos accounted for 7.5% of people in the U.S. over 65, but almost 25% of those under 15.

The large population gains of Latino and other minority youth mean nonwhites will not only have more voting clout in the years ahead but also constitute the labor force of tomorrow.

Yet this racial generational gap, which is particularly large in California and the Southwest, also points up the potential challenges as the U.S. relies on younger minorities to pick up the slack of an aging nation, including supporting social programs for a mostly white senior population.

"What we are seeing here is just the tip of the iceberg as white baby boomers continue to retire and whites make up ever smaller shares of the child-bearing population," said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the annual census data on population by age and race.

"It suggests that even greater priority should be given to providing these young minorities education opportunities and other resources to be successful as members of the labor force," he said.

The new census release shows how economics drive population and migration trends. Although the median age -- the point at which half the population is younger and half older -- ticked up a notch to 37.6 years nationally last July from a year earlier, it fell in seven states, notably in North Dakota and elsewhere in America's breadbasket.

"We're seeing the demographic impact of two booms," Census Bureau Director John Thompson said in a statement. "The population in the Great Plains energy boom states is becoming younger and more male as workers move in seeking employment in the oil and gas industry, while the U.S. as a whole continues to age as the youngest of the baby boom generation enters their 50s."

The economy also is a major factor behind the changes in immigration. The nation's foreign-born population grew by 843,145 people from 2012 to 2013, down about 5% from the previous 12-month period, according to the census data. The drop came mostly from Latinos, whose immigrant population growth has been overtaken by Asians in the last two years.

Part of the decline in the foreign-born Latino growth reflects demographic and economic changes in Mexico, says Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a Chicano studies professor at UCLA. "Mexico is rapidly aging and running out of young workers," he said. At the same time, Mexicans are finding more jobs at home as their economy has seen relatively strong growth.

Although the continuing drop in the American unemployment rate is likely to spur more Latinos to migrate to the U.S., Hinojosa-Ojeda said, "we're heading in a renewed pattern of Asian immigration at a much faster clip."

In fact, the number of Asian immigrants in the U.S. rose by 337,587 last year, up 6% from 2012. That was the primary reason Asians were the fastest-growing racial group last year. Between July 2012 and July 2013 the Asian population in the U.S. increased by almost 2.9% to 19.4 million.

That compares with a population growth rate of 2% for Latinos during the same period, to 54.1 million as of last July; and an increase of 1% for blacks, to 41.6 million.

Non-Hispanic whites still constitute the majority of the nation's population at 62.6%, but their numbers barely changed last year, at 197.8 million.

Madeleine Sumption, an economist and research director at the Migration Policy Institute's international program, says two big factors are behind the relatively rapid gains in the Asian population: a surge of Chinese foreign students over the last decade, some of whom are staying on to work after graduating; and the growing ranks of professionals from India, who are receiving about two-thirds of the so-called H-1B work visas.

Given the U.S. economy's demand for computer engineers and other technical workers, analysts reckon this trend will continue. It will also be fueled by Asia's rising wealth.

"One of the drivers of that is economic growth in Asia, which actually creates more scope for highly skilled immigration to the U.S.," said Sumption. "The U.S. still has a really significant draw."

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