Two trends changing American life


Dr. James Johnson, a demographer from North Carolina, spoke to school board members from across Arkansas Dec. 5 about disruptive trends, some of which are so big that there’s no way they can be reversed – simply reacted to.

Two of them are the aging population and the rising Hispanic population, what he calls “the browning and graying of America.” They’re related.

You probably are aware how quickly the population is aging, but it’s worth a review. After World War II, veterans returned home and started having families, creating the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964. Those baby boomers were not nearly as reproductive when they became adults as their parents were. Additionally, medical advances are extending life.

The result is that a bulge of 80 million baby boomers is turning 65 at the rate of 8,032 per day and expecting to live quite a long time. Because as a group they did not have big families, the number of Americans in younger age groups is growing slowly or, among those in the prime working ages of 25-44, declining.

This situation of a lot of retirees and not that many more workers will place an enormous strain on Social Security and Medicare, but there will be other challenges. When people retire, they take their skills and experience out of the workforce, and somebody has to be ready to take their place. Demographers call that “the succession problem,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, this trend will change the way Americans work. Many, many people of prime working age will be taking care of their elderly parents. While child care is routine enough that it can be organized around work, with elder care, work has to be organized around life. As it should be.

This aging society is not about to become younger. The median age for Americans is 37 – half younger, half older. For Arkansans, it’s 38. According to Johnson, women around that age are about to enter the stage of life known to demographers as “completed fertility.”

How does that make you feel, my fellow Class of ’87 members?

That brings us to the other disruptive trend, the rising Hispanic population – and, by the way, “disruptive” does not mean “bad.” It just means “big.”

Remember that median age of 37 for Americans and 38 for Arkansans? For white, nonHispanic women, it’s 42.6 in America and 42 in Arkansas. Everyone else is younger. The median age of Hispanics in America is 27. The median age of Hispanic females in Arkansas is 22.

Twenty-two-year-olds will produce a lot more babies than 42-year-olds. In July 2011, for the first time in American history, less than 50 percent of all newborns were white, and it’s unlikely the number will ever rise above that mark again. By 2050, America will no longer be a majority white country.

That’s going to be hard for some people to deal with, and it’s going to cause major societal changes regardless.

But let’s go back to the previous trend: what Johnson calls “the silver tsunami.” It is becoming demographically impossible for post-baby boom generations to keep up with their elders. There just are too many older people and not enough young people, and the young people are not young enough.

Except with Hispanics. Be thankful for that rising population, Johnson said, because that bulge of young people will help the country care for its elders and replenish the labor force.

“This is not just a social or moral question,” he told school board members. “It’s a competitiveness question. You need them. You need the talent. Somebody’s got to pay the bills.”

That’s not to say the country shouldn’t have a rational immigration policy based on law and order. But if we start building walls, we’ll go broke.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, compared to all this, much of the sound and fury involved in today’s political debates signifies nothing. Laws and politics and elections cannot reverse these trends. They can only react to them.

But since this is a political column, during this past election, President Obama won the Hispanic vote, 71 percent to 27 percent. He beat Mitt Romney worse among that fast-growing group than he beat John McCain in 2008.

Nationally, Republicans are contemplating how to react to this disruptive demographic trend. They’d better figure out something.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com