(April 2004) Within the next few years, the U.S. population — currently estimated at 293 million — is expected to reach twice its 1950 level of 151 million.

Of course, when it does, the United States won't be just as it was in 1950 but twice as large. It will be qualitatively different. "We've known for a long time that the U.S. is getting bigger, older, and more diverse," said Gregory Spencer, chief of the Census Bureau's population projections branch. But recently released U.S. Census Bureau projections — the first based on 2000 Census data — illustrate how these trends will reshape the nation in the decades to come.

The U.S. population is expected to increase 49 percent to reach 420 million in 2050.

That total is about 30 million higher than projected in the 1990s, reflecting a better handle on "tracking the actual amount of international migration as well as increasing life spans," reported Spencer.

This population growth contrasts dramatically with that of European countries. "In Europe, only Norway and Ireland are projected to be 10 percent larger in 2050," he noted.

Increasing Diversity

The projections, based on assumptions about future childbearing, mortality, and international migration, foretell a potential cultural shift.

The nation's Hispanic and Asian populations are expected to triple by 2050, while non-Hispanic whites are expected to grow more slowly to represent about one-half of the nation's population. "More than half of U.S. population growth is now among Hispanics and Asians," reported Spencer. Between 2000 and 2050, the population of Hispanic origin (who may be of any race) will increase from 36 million to 103 million. Their portion of the country's population will nearly double, from 13 percent to 24 percent, during that period.

The Asian population is projected to triple, from 11 million to 33 million. This will slightly more than double their population share, from 4 percent to 8 percent.

The population representing "all other races" — a category that includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, as well as those who indicated two or more races on census forms — is also expected to triple between 2000 and 2050, growing from 7 million to about 22 million. This group's share of the population would double during that time, from nearly 3 percent to 5 percent.

Spencer's team took into account trends in mixed-race childbearing and how respondents identify their racial and ethnic heritage to calculate the projections for this group. More specific data will be released in another year, he said.

According to the projections, the non-Hispanic white and black populations would increase more slowly than other groups. Non-Hispanic whites are expected to increase from 196 million in 2000 to 210 million in 2050, representing a 7 percent increase. Beginning in the 2040s, non-Hispanic whites are projected to start losing population and to make up 50 percent of the total population in 2050, a drop from 69 percent in 2000.

The black population is projected to grow from 36 million to 61 million in 2050, an increase of 71 percent. That change will increase blacks' share of the nation's population from 13 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2050.

In 2002, Hispanics (who may be of any race) overtook blacks (a category that includes Hispanic blacks) for the first time, making Hispanics the nation's largest minority group, according to related estimates.

An Aging Population

America is now on the brink of an elderly boom, and the new projections illustrate its magnitude. Since the 1950s, the number of older people (those ages 65 and older) has been growing gradually, but it will increase sharply beginning in 2011 as the baby-boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) begins to turn 65. Today, roughly one in eight Americans are older, up from roughly one in 10 in the 1950s. By 2030, when the entire baby-boom generation has reached age 65, older people are expected to include almost one in five people. This share resembles Florida's population today. By 2050, the share will be slightly more than one in five.

The fastest growing segment of the older population is the oldest old — that is, those ages 85 and older. They are projected to total 6 million as early as 2010, twice their 1990 level. Beginning in 2031, when the baby boomers will begin reaching 85, the number of oldest old will increase rapidly. The 85-and-over population is expected to grow fivefold, from 4 million in 2000 to 21 million by 2050.

This group is of particular concern to policymakers and planners because people ages 85 and older are more likely to be disabled than "young" elderly, ages 65 to 74.

"The baby boomers' parents had large families and have children to look out for them in old age," said Spencer. "But the baby boomers had fewer kids, married less often, and were more likely to live alone. Who will look out for them in old age?"


Paola Scommegna is a freelance writer.