The sweeping racial changes transforming the United States come with an important demographic dimension: age. The waves of Hispanics and Asians and multiracial Americans reshaping the country’s population are full of young people, who by some measures already outnumber their white counterparts. The trend was punctuated by the arrival in 2011 of the first “majority-minority” birth cohort, the first in which the majority of U.S. babies were nonwhite minorities. Consequently, the racial makeup of the nation’s younger population is beginning to contrast sharply with that of baby boomers and seniors.

For most of U.S. history, the white population has been viewed as “mainstream” society, with sociologists viewing the assimilation of immigrants and ethnic minorities as dependent on their adoption of its way of life.1 Not coincidentally, whites were the numerically dominant racial group in the United States during that same time. (Between 1790 and 1980, whites ranged from 80 to 90 percent of the population.) But whites’ tenure as America’s mainstream population is on the wane, in a demographic sense.

The most recent information from the census and elsewhere shows how quickly the shift is happening. From 2000 to 2010, a decade during which the white population as a whole grew by just 1.2 percent, the number of white children in the United States declined by 4.3 million. Meanwhile the child populations of Hispanics, Asians, and people of two or more races were increasing. In comparative terms, whites constituted just 53 percent of America’s young people (down from nearly 70 percent in 1990) while Hispanics constituted 23 percent (up from just 12 percent). Smaller white populations already are evident in institutions that serve youth, such as elementary and secondary schools, and census projections show the white child population continuing to decline for years to come. White children will become a minority of children under age 18 well before 2020, and, soon thereafter, the white population as a whole is projected to begin to decrease.

For most of the lifetime of today’s young people—nearly one-half of whom already are members of racial minorities—America’s white population will be shrinking.

The reason for the divergence is straightforward: In the white population, there will be fewer births than deaths, and nowhere near enough whites emigrating to the United States to make up the difference. Both of those trends are expected to continue, even as the minority child population will continue to rise, regardless of future immigration scenarios. With white fertility below replacement level, there will not be enough births to keep the total white population from falling. At the same time, there is a growing presence of new minorities among women of childbearing age, a result of the immigration of relatively young adult populations from Latin America and Asia in previous decades. Although minority fertility rates are gradually decreasing overall, the crude birth rate (births per 1,000 persons) among most minority groups remains higher than that for whites.

One corrolary to these shifts is that the white population is aging more rapidly than that of other racial groups. The 2010 census indicated that the median age for whites was 42 years. For Asians, it was 35.4. For Hispanics, it was 27.3. And for the population marking “more than once race,” it was a staggering 19.9. Overall, just 7 percent of the minority population was age 65 or older, while 16 percent of the white population had already reached that milestone. In the years to come, the slowly growing white population will begin an accelerated aging process, while higher fertility and immigration rates mean that the minority population will not age nearly as rapidly. By 2030, approximately 26 percent of the nation’s whites but just 13 percent of minorities will be seniors.

Like the nation as a whole, 46 states and the vast majority (86) of the 100 largest metropolitan areas registered declines in their white child populations between 2000 and 2010. Amid pervasive losses in the white child population, Hispanic youth populations grew in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in all but one large metropolitan area (Los Angeles); in Texas, which led the nation in child population growth, 931,000 of the 979,000 young people the state added (or 95 percent) were Hispanic. Asian child populations declined in only two states and three metropolitan areas, and child populations of two or more races expanded in all states and in 96 of the 100 largest metropolita areas. In all, ten states and 35 metropolitan areas had minority-white child populations as of 2010.

The diversification of the U.S. population from the bottom holds more than just demographic significance. It reflects an emerging cultural divide between the young and the old as they adapt to change in different ways.

The cultural generation gap can be linked partly to the sharp racial distinctions between the baby boomers—who are mostly over the age of 50—and their elders, on one hand, and, on the other, the younger generations: the millennial generation and young members of generation X and their children, who constitute the population under the age of 35. Baby boomers and seniors are more than 70 percent white. In contrast, millennials and young generation Xers and their children are more than 40 percent minority. At the extremes of the age spectrum, the differences are even more pronounced: As of 2010, slightly more than one-half of children under age five were white; in contrast, the oldest age group was 85 percent white.

But the cultural generation gap is also a product of the specific eras during which the different groups were raised and became adults. Conceived during the prosperous post−World War II period, the baby boomers brought a rebellious, progressive sensibility to the country in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. With the help of the programs of the Great Society, they became the most well-schooled generation to date and the epitome of America’s largely white, suburban middle class, with which most of today’s adults now identify.

Yet the baby boomers also came of age at a moment when the United States was becoming more insular than it had been before. Between 1946 and 1964, the years of the baby boom, the immigrant share of the U.S. population shrank to an all-time low (under 5 percent), and the immigrants who did arrive were largely white Europeans. Growing up in mostly white, segregated suburbs, white baby boomers did not have much interaction with people unlike them. Although baby boomers have been interested in righting domestic wrongs, such as racial discrimination, and bursting glass ceilings, they are now joining seniors in voicing sharp resistance to America’s new racial change. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll shows that only 23 percent of baby boomers and seniors regard the country’s growing population of immigrants as a change for the better and that 42 percent see it as a change for the worse. More than one-half of white baby boomers and seniors said that the growing number of newcomers from other countries represents a threat to traditional U.S. values and customs.

The Pew survey found marked differences between baby boomers and millennials—who are known for their racial inclusiveness—with regard to agreement that the following are changes for the better: that more people of different races are marrying each other (36 percent versus 60 percent), that the population of Hispanics is growing (21 percent versus 33 percent), and that the population of Asians is growing (24 percent versus 43 percent).

Underpinning the generational divide are shifts in what demographers call old-age dependency and child dependency, which now have a distinct racial dimension. By 2020, the old-age dependency ratio for whites will exceed the child dependency ratio, and for the two decades that follow, white seniors will outnumber white children. That stands in marked contrast to the position of Hispanics, whose youth dependency will remain well above 45 through 2040, even as the old-age dependency ratio inches up to 21.

To put it another way: Although new minorities and immigrants are driving the increases in the younger and labor force–age populations, the growth of the senior population is driven by the mostly white baby boomers. The result is a potential for conflict. There is no question that the primary concern of working-age Hispanics—and to a lesser extent Asians and blacks—will be their children rather than the older dependent population. For working-age whites, elderly dependents will be a primary concern as well as their own future well-being as they enter their retirement years.

The cultural divide opening between the older, whiter and younger, more diverse generations will require adaptation on all sides, and policymakers and citizens alike will need to approach these changes with a long view. Rather than seeing the inevitable changes as damaging to the American way of life, it behooves the nation to consider the future, and prepare now for a country that will be majority-minority.

  1. Early views of assimilation typically depicted mainstream Americans as whites of Northern and Western European heritage, not as those whites who arrived later from Southern and Eastern Europe. See Milton Gordon, Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and Natural Origins (Oxford University Press, 1964). See also chapter 1 in Richard Alba and Victor Nee, Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and American Immigration (Harvard University Press, 2003). 

Reprinted with permission from Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America by William H. Frey (Brookings Press, 2014).