WASHINGTON — 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-Latino white Americans made up almost 79 percent of the country’s population of people older than 65 as of July 2013, but the white share of residents younger than 15 slipped further to 51.8 percent, according to an analysis of new Census Bureau data released Thursday.
By comparison, Latinos accounted for 7.5 percent of people in the U.S. over 65, but almost 25 percent of those under 15.
The large population gains of Latino and other minority youth mean that nonwhites will not only have more voting clout in the years ahead but also constitute the labor force of tomorrow.
Yet this racial generation 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. “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 July 2012 to July 2013, down about 5 percent 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, said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a Chicano studies professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.
“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 percent from the previous year. That was the primary reason that Asians were the fastest-growing racial group last year. From July 2012 to July 2013, the Asian population in the U.S. increased almost 2.9 percent to 19.4 million.
That compares with a population growth rate of 2 percent for Latinos during the same period, to 54.1 million as of July 2013, and an increase of 1 percent for blacks, to 41.6 million.
Non-Latino whites still constitute most of the nation’s population, at 62.6 percent, but their numbers barely changed last year, at 197.8 million.
Madeleine Sumption, research director at the Migration Policy Institute’s international program, said two big factors are behind the relatively rapid gains in the Asian population: a surge of Chinese foreign students in the past 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 that 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.,” Sumption said. “The U.S. still has a really significant draw.”