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The Latinization and Aging of America: Tension or Partnership?

Fernando Torres-Gil is an associate professor of gerontology and public administration at USC. He is currently on leave, serving as the staff director of the House Select Committee on Aging

Demography is destiny, and when demographers look into the future they see American life profoundly altered by two trends now taking shape: the rapid growth of the Latino population and the aging of the so-called baby-boom generation.

The Census Bureau recently reported that the Latino population is growing three times faster than that of the nation overall; it may double within 30 years. The percentage of the general population over the age of 65, now 12%, will be 20% in 50 years.

These two trends--Latinization and aging--had heretofore been examined separately as if they were occurring in two worlds devoid of any interaction with each other. A recent report, “Hispanics in an Aging Society,” compiled by the Aging Society Project of Carnegie Corp., dramatizes the inter-relationships of these trends and raises some important questions about the future of young minority groups in an aging society. Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, summarized the report’s message as one that the American public must take to heart: “If we don’t invest in the Hispanic population today, we will pay the consequences tomorrow.”

In many areas of the country Latinos will become the predominant ethnic group and will remain a relatively young population. At the same time, the largely white elderly population is growing rapidly while the number of white youths is decreasing. What this means is that Latinos will become a mainstay of the labor force, particularly in the Sun Belt states where they are largest in numbers and to which many older persons are migrating.

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This raises some intriguing questions: Will Latinos have the necessary skills and education to be productive workers? Will they be able to afford to pay the taxes necessary to support public benefits and programs for an older society, as well as provide the hundreds of billions of dollars required for public infrastructure (schools, highways, water and sewage systems, airports and harbors, mass transit, and so on) necessary to keep California and other states economically prosperous? Or will baby boomers, as they become senior boomers, use their political power to compete unfairly for scarce resources with a relatively unskilled and uneducated Latino population?

In raising these troubling questions the Carnegie report alerts us to one response that we can--must--take immediately: We must acknowledge the importance of strengthening the work force by investing in ethnic- and racial-minority young people on whom the nation will depend for its security.

Unfortunately, there are some who are taking the demographic data simply as a portent of inter-ethnic and inter-generational conflict. In their worst-case scenario, a largely Latin work force resentfully, and only minimally, supports a large population of elderly non-Latinos.

This divisive interpretation flies in the face of common sense. For one thing, young blacks and Latinos will soon enough be elderly themselves and expecting the same public benefits that today’s older population enjoys. The same census report that predicted overall Latino population growth also projected that the elderly Latino population will likely quadruple in only the next 30 years.

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Furthermore, older whites and young blacks and Latinos already have much in common, including the need for health services, job training and retraining, and education geared to the increasingly technological workplace. Together, these groups would make a powerful coalition that politicians would be loathe to alienate or ignore.

The key element in determining whether the Latinization and aging of California and much of the nation will result in tension or partnership will be the extent to which the public and private sectors make a renewed commitment to investing in our young minority population.

A window of opportunity exists to do so in the remainder of this decade and the 1990s. It will be too late in 2010, when the baby boomers begin to retire, to decide to educate young minority Americans so that they are productive in the competitive, high-tech economy of the 21st Century--and so that they, as well as we, can look forward to a secure old age.


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