California is the world's largest experiment in social diversity. It has had no majority racial ethnic group since 1999, when whites fell below 50% of the population. In March, Latinos will become the largest group here, making up 39% of state residents, according to demographers in the state Department of Finance.
The news that California now has more Latinos than any other ethnicity will unavoidably be spun in different ways and spur much pontificating about what California's future holds. But those who focus on the changing racial/ethnic demographics might be missing the point. It is generational shifts, not racial or ethnic ones, that will weigh most heavily on California in the decades to come. And stronger connections between generations will be our salvation.
No racial or ethnic group is projected to hold a majority in California until 2065, when Latinos are expected to reach a majority for the first time since statehood. Earlier estimates by state demographers targeted 2042, but growth in the Latino population has slowed dramatically. Instead, California likely will remain a state of all minorities for another half a century.
It was stunning how quickly the Latino population grew to prominence in California. From 12.1% of the population in 1970, the Latino share leaped to 26% in 1990, then grew more slowly to 37.7% in 2010. Meanwhile, the relatively stable population of 15 million whites represented a smaller and smaller slice of California. General perception, however, has lagged reality: The Latino population boom is over.
The reasons don't spell good news for California. Immigration has dropped sharply from its peak around 1990, and birthrates have plunged since then as well. We now have fewer adults of parenting age — as in the rest of the nation — and also declining numbers of children. These trends have been further aggravated in California by high housing prices and diminished economic opportunities post-2007. It's not just Latino population growth that has slowed, it's the whole state's. When will California reach 50 million residents? Old projections were 2032; now we think 2049.
Slower population growth can be useful; in essence, it can let the state borrow time to catch up on needed infrastructure improvements and reduce environmental impacts. But in California, it is problematic if we have fewer young adults, because we will grow top-heavy with retirees, courtesy of the massive, aging baby boom generation. This imbalance of ages — with more people over 65 and fewer in their prime working years — has big societal implications for employment rates, taxes, the housing market and more.
Our longtime solution — attracting new workers from outside California — is no longer a viable source of relief. Migration, both interstate and from abroad, has been dropping since 1990. And today, California must compete with other states and aging economies from across the industrialized world that are starved for workers because of low birthrates. Alternatively, the effects of an outsized senior population can be tempered (somewhat) by pushing baby boomers to delay retirement for five or even 10 years. But is that even desirable?
Ultimately, the most feasible path to continued California prosperity is to invest in the economic productivity of our youth.
Here is where generational and racial/ethnic demographics converge. Among this older population, some 60% are white, and because older people vote more heavily, whites will remain the majority of voters in the state until about 2032, by my projections. But our youth in training to be future workers and taxpayers are 52% Latino.
It's crucial that these generations get on the same page. White voters may have previously resented Latino population growth, particularly as it indicated more density and congestion and a greater tax burden. But now Latinos' economic well-being will be the underpinning of the whole state.
The emergence of this new plurality should prompt everyone to recognize how central young Latinos are to all Californians' future. Will older voters look backward or forward as they determine how much tax revenue to invest in schools, technical education and universities? Cultivating the potential of the next generation of taxpayers and workers is vital to their own self-interest. The success of the California experiment hinges not just on our multiethnic coexistence but on a partnership between generations.
Dowell Myers is a professor of policy, planning and demography in the Price School of Public Policy at USC.