Op-Ed

The new racial generation gap

In the 1960s, a flip but still effective aphorism summed up the rebelliousness of youth: “Don't trust anyone over 30.” As it turns out, that admonition is a much more fitting bumper sticker for today's student activists than it was 50 years ago. Young people now — the post-millennials — face a far deeper generational divide than the one that separated baby boomers from their parents. And the nation faces a far more serious crisis if that divide cannot be bridged.

The wave of mostly white, mostly middle-class boomers that flooded college campuses in the 1960s got swept up in a variety of causes — Vietnam, civil rights, feminism. They questioned authority in ways their Depression- and World War II-era parents never did. Yet it could be argued that most of them had little reason in general to object to the status quo. They had benefited from post-World War II prosperity and government programs, such as the GI Bill, that allowed their parents to raise them in comfortable suburban homes and send them to free, decent public schools. Later, Great Society initiatives such as the Higher Education Act of 1965 enabled them to attend college in historic numbers at a reasonable cost, and there were jobs in the offing after graduation.

Back then, public investments in America's families and youth were embraced by older generations who wanted their children and grandchildren to achieve the American dream. The situation — and the demography — is much different today.

The younger population of the U.S. is now highly diverse. Racial minorities, who are not always from the middle class, represent roughly half of the students in the nation's K-12 public schools. That level of diversity is destined to increase: Since the 2010 census, in 46 out of 50 states and in nearly 9 out of 10 of the country's 3,100 counties, more white youths have turned 20 than were born or in-migrated. By 2023, whites will comprise less than half of the U.S. population under age 30. More important, the entire white working-age population will decline by 12 million over the next 15 years because of aging and retirement; that means young Latinos, blacks, Asians and other minorities must take their place.

This new diverse majority of young people will have far fewer advantages compared with the white-majority boomers in the '60s. Although high school dropout rates among young black and Latino students have been falling, four-year college enrollment is well below whites', a situation compounded by high attrition rates. Should these patterns continue, the nation will see an absolute drop in college graduates after 2020. Moreover, income inequality is hitting the younger minority generations particularly hard, as evidenced by their continuing high rates of child poverty. It is still the case that many blacks and Latinos attend highly segregated, under-resourced public schools and lack the finances and guidance to get into postsecondary programs that are the best pathways to the middle class.

These facts, and America's inevitable demographic future, put recent campus protests into sharp perspective. The complaints voiced by black, Latinos and other minority students (and their white allies) strongly indicate that a racially prejudicial environment still exists at four-year colleges, which remain more white (61%) than the students in the K-12 pipeline. Yet it is imperative that minority students succeed at these colleges. These slow-to-change institutions must successfully invest in diversity, making minorities' contributions, voices and concerns central to their educational mission.

The message needs to be heeded beyond college campuses as well, by public officials, corporations, even city police forces: Investing in the success of today's diverse youth is critical for the entire nation, which needs a productive labor force and its attendant contributions to Medicare, Social Security and other programs.

The baby boomers in particular need to hear the message. Now in their 50s and 60s, too many of them are more concerned with lowering their taxes than investing in the younger generation. Given the choice between a larger government that offers more services and a smaller government with limited services and lower taxes, white boomers are far more likely than millennial or Gen X minorities to choose the latter, according to a 2013 Pew survey. And it has been shown that those states with the largest gains in minority children, but mostly white seniors — including Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona — rank among the lowest third of states on a measure of child well-being that includes education, health and other areas in which state government programs can assist.

Such attitudes among older whites — the only growing segment of the white electorate — shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as racist. Instead they reflect a fear of the unknown, potential negative economic consequences for themselves, and a lack of personal connection with the younger generation outside their own families.

When the nation's college students return to campus after winter break, it would be understandable if they added a new slogan to their petitions, tweets and picket signs: “Don't trust anyone over 30, and especially don't trust anyone over 50.” Older, white Americans need to recognize diversity's importance to the nation's future, and once and for all realize that the 1960s are long gone.

William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a population studies professor at the University of Michigan, is author of "Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America."

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 29, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A new generation gap - Baby boomers need to heed the protests of a diverse younger cohort." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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