(May 2007) New population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that in 2006, the U.S. minority population topped 100 million for the first time in U.S. history. But minorities are not evenly distributed across age groups. The new estimates show a growing racial/ethnic divergence between America's elderly population and younger age groups, creating a new kind of generation gap in the United States. While the large majority of people over age 60 are non-Hispanic white, a substantial and growing proportion of young people are racial or ethnic minorities.

Historically, the generation gap has been defined by different cultural tastes—in music, fashion, or technology—between older and younger age cohorts. But the new demographic divide has broader implications for social programs and education spending for youth. Will America’s elderly support initiatives for a youth population that is racially mixed?

Racial and Ethnic Divisions Increase, Temporarily

In 1980, the racial and ethnic divisions between age groups were fairly small (see figure).

Percent Minority* in U.S., by Age Group, 1980-2030

Percent Minority* in U.S., by Age Group, 1980-2030

*Includes those who are not non-Hispanic white.
Source: Population Reference Bureau analysis of U.S. Census data.

People in their 60s had a similar racial/ethnic profile as those in their 40s and 50s, who in turn looked similar to those in their 20s and 30s. The difference in the share of minorities did not exceed 5 percentage points in successive generations.

By 2006, however, these generational differences had increased substantially. Those in their 40s and 50s—members of the baby-boom generation—are stuck between very different generations: that of the nation's parents and grandparents, most of whom are U.S.-born whites, and that of U.S. children and grandchildren, who are increasingly Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial.

Census projections indicate that this racial/ethnic divergence may be a temporary phenomenon. Over the next 25 years, the racial/ethnic differences between age cohorts are projected to shrink somewhat as the number of minorities in older age groups increases. However, in 2030, roughly 70 percent of the population age 60 and older is still projected to be non-Hispanic white, distinguishing that age group from younger generations.

Immigration and Fertility Contributing to the Demographic Divide

Two main factors have contributed to the growing demographic divide between generations. First, relatively high immigration levels since the mid-1960s have fueled rapid growth of the Hispanic and Asian populations in the United States. Since most of these new immigrants are young, they have boosted the size of America's youth population relative to the elderly.

Second, many immigrants have children after they arrive in the United States, and tend to have higher fertility rates than the U.S.-born population. As a result, more than one in five U.S. children are either foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent.

Between 1990 and 2000, the increase in minorities accounted for 98 percent of the growth in the child population,1 and in 2006, minorities accounted for nearly one-half of children under age 5. In 20 years, these children will transform the racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. workforce. For the elderly—80 percent of whom are non-Hispanic white—change will come more slowly. Health improvements and new medical technologies are prolonging the lives of people in the oldest age groups. In addition, minorities are most concentrated in the youngest age categories and will not reach retirement age for several decades. If current trends continue, the minority share of the elderly population will drop to 60 percent by 2050.

The impact of immigration can be seen in the racial/ethnic patterns across the 50 states, see table and map (PDF: 334KB). The new generation gap is most evident in California, Florida, and the southwestern states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas—all of which receive large numbers of immigrants from Latin America. In Arizona, over half of the people under age 20 were minorities, compared with one-sixth of the population age 60 or older. Many elderly in the southwestern states and Florida are recent retirees who moved from northern states. In each of these states the minority share of the youth population is at least 25 percentage points higher than the minority share of the elderly population.

States with the smallest differences in racial/ethnic profiles of youth and elderly populations include Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Will the Growing Racial/Ethnic Gap Reduce Public Spending on Youth?

Researchers at Harvard University found that the racial/ethnic composition of a population can have important effects on social programs and spending. In the United States, communities that are more racially/ethnically fragmented devote a smaller share of resources to public goods, including education,2 compared to more homogeneous areas. Crossnational research also has shown that racial/ethnic divisions may explain up to half of the gap in social spending between the United States and Europe.3

The Population Reference Bureau analyzed racial/ethnic divisions across the 50 states and compared these demographic profiles with state spending on public education. This comparison of state spending patterns showed that states with the highest racial/ethnic fragmentation spent the lowest share of gross state product on public education (3.4 percent, on average), while states with the least fragmentation spent the highest share on education (4.2 percent).4

In fact, the three states that were the most homogeneous—Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia—had the highest proportional spending on public education. These percentages may seem small but translate into large dollar amounts. In California, for example, a 0.5 percent increase in education spending as a share of that state's economy translates into another $7 billion for schools.

Mark Mather is deputy director of domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. William P. O'Hare, "The Child Population: First Data from the 2000 Census," A KIDS COUNT/PRB Report on Census 2000 (Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2001). 
  2. Alberto Alesina et al., "Public Goods and Ethnic Divisions," Quarterly Journal of Economics 114, no. 4 (1999): 1243-84.
  3. Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  4. This analysis does not take into account other social, economic, or political factors that could affect state spending patterns on education.