The numbers of Latinos and Asians in the United States will triple over the next half-century as an aging white population slips from its traditional majority perch, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections released today. The estimates through 2050 show that during the current decade, the U.S. will, for the first time, reach the demographic milestone of more than 100 million minority residents. By 2010, minorities will number more than 110 million out of a total population of 309 million.
"You really see a snapshot here of the old America and the new America at the same time," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a centrist research and policy center in Washington. "One America will be white, middle-class and graying, and then you'll have this new kind of globalized America coming to the fore."
He called it a "racial generation gap."
The broad direction of America's demographic evolution has been roughly mapped, but the new figures are based on the most recent data, factoring in the results of the 2000 Census. The head count showed both a sharp increase and a geographic dispersal of the Latino and Asian populations.
In terms of diversity, the country in about 50 years will look more like California does now. In California, Latinos could well become the majority, although an increasing number are leaving the state in search of better economic opportunities.
Projections by the California Department of Finance indicate that Latinos will account for 48% of the state's population in 2040. Non-Latino whites, who now account for slightly less than half of Californians, will represent about 31%. The Census Bureau is developing its own state-level projections.
According to the national figures released today, the total U.S. population will rise to about 420 million in 2050, a 49% increase from 2000. As the Baby Boom generation -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- begins to die, the population will grow much more slowly. After 2030, the rate of increase might be the slowest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The number of Latinos -- who can be of any race -- are projected to grow to 103 million by 2050. That represents a nearly threefold increase from 36 million in 2000. The number of Asians would rise to 33 million, from 11 million in 2000.
Non-Latino whites, who now account for about 70% of the U.S. population, are expected to drop to barely more than 50% in 2050. The share of blacks in the population is seen increasing slightly to 15%, compared with about 13% now. Whites will cease to be a majority around the mid-2050s.
As the Baby Boomers retire, the number of people 65 and older will increase from about 35 million now to 87 million in 2050. Reflecting longer life spans, the number of people 85 and older will increase nearly five-fold to 21 million.
The changes will bring potential benefits and pitfalls, according to experts who track such developments. On the positive side, continued immigration will help keep the United States growing during years when Europe and Japan are expected to lose population. More working-age taxpayers will shore up the sagging bottom line of programs for the elderly, such as Medicare and Social Security.
"It's going to be immigrant labor supporting the aging white population," said Edward Telles, a UCLA sociologist. "They need this growing Latino population to maintain the Social Security system."
Immigrants also provide links to Asian and Latin economies. "Immigration is keeping us younger and is increasing our diversity," said Elizabeth Grieco, a demographer with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
On the negative side, an ethnic edge to the generational equity debate may make it more difficult to balance the right of the elderly to a secure retirement and the obligations of younger workers.
"We are already seeing this in places in California, where the property-holding population that pays taxes for schools is different from the population that is sending kids to school," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington research group.
"You have two basic interlocking dynamics: the aging of the non-Hispanic population and a very youthful Hispanic population."
Most U.S. Latinos are of Mexican origin. For decades, Mexican Americans settled in the Southwest, California and Chicago. But in the 1990s, immigrants from Mexico began showing up by the thousands in much of the South and parts of the Northeast and Midwest, a trend that is expected to continue.
"We are going to become a more diverse country, but we are going to be diverse in different ways, in different regions," Frey said. "The West will have a much stronger Mexican and Latin flavor.
"In the South, the black population is moving back, but it is not growing nearly as fast as the Asian and Hispanic population. The South will become more multi-ethnic. In the Northeast, Midwest and Plains states, you will see more of the aging white population."
But the Census Bureau estimates are not a clear crystal ball, said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer with the Urban Institute, a social policy and research organization in Washington.
In some cases, they are not designed to predict the course of significant changes already in progress. For example, the projections assume fairly rigid racial and ethnic categories and do not account for the effect of a growing number of mixed marriages. The children of those marriages may not identify with the racial and ethnic labels of their parents.
"The history of 100 years of immigration in the United States shows high rates of intermarriage across ethnic groups," Passel said. "What were hard and fast lines between groups have disappeared, so it's kind of hard to say what will happen."
Latinos and Asians already have high rates of intermarriage. Half the marriages among third-generation Latinos are to spouses who are not Latino, Passel said.
"The future size of the Latino population is not only a function of immigration and birth rates, but of intermarriage and how people will choose to identify themselves 50 years from now," he said.