(June 2010) Racial and ethnic minorities make up a growing share of the U.S. population—35 percent in 2009, up from 31 percent in 2000, according to new population estimates from the Census Bureau. But there is one group—young adults ages 20 to 24—that stands out because the proportion of minorities has stayed about the same, increasing a single percentage point from 38 percent to 39 percent since 2000. This anomaly may be partially explained by the recession, which has reduced the net inflow of young Latino immigrants to the United States. However, there has also been a substantial increase in the number of college-age, white "echo boomers" since 2000, offsetting minority population growth for that age group.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States increased by 25 percent—compared with a 2 percent increase in the number of non-Hispanic whites. Yet among 20-to-24-year-olds, the percent change in the white population since 2000 (12 percent) approached the population growth of minorities during the same period (17 percent). The result of these divergent trends is a demographic "pause" in the share of minorities in the college-age population.

This trend seems counterintuitive, given the rapid growth in racial/ethnic minorities, especially among young adults and children. In fact, the "millennial generation" has been described as the most racially diverse cohort of youth in the nation's history.1 But a large number of millenials are also echo boomers—children of those born during the baby boom from 1946 to 1964. These echo boomers, who are mostly white, are now reaching adulthood and changing the racial landscape in America's colleges and in the work force.

Another factor is the recession, which has reduced net immigration levels for young Latino workers. Between 2000 and 2009, the Latino population ages 20 to 24 increased by 14 percent, compared with a 37 percent gain for the Latino population as a whole. The population of young Latino men—who have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn—increased by only 9 percent.2 In 2009, the unemployment rate for Latino men ages 20 to 24 was 17 percent, compared with 11 percent unemployment among Latino men in older age groups (25 to 54). The national average unemployment rate in 2009 was around 9 percent.3

How long will this last? In another 20 years, the echo boomers will be replaced by a new generation of young adults that is much more racially and ethnically diverse. In 2009, nearly half of all children under age 5 (48 percent) were minorities. There are two main factors behind this transformation of the youth population. First, there has been a rise in intermarriage across groups, so the grandchildren of baby boomers are more likely to identify with more than one race, compared with earlier generations of youth. Second, relatively high levels of immigration and the growing number of children in immigrant families is going to dominate U.S. population growth and changes in racial/ethnic composition for the foreseeable future. Thus, the effect of the baby boom on the size and characteristics of the U.S. population will diminish with each passing generation.


Mark Mather is associate vice president in Domestic Programs at PRB.


References

  1. The Pew Research Center, "The Millennials," accessed online at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1437/millennials-profile, on June 8, 2010.
  2. Mark Mather, "Hard Times for Latino Men," accessed online at www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2010/latinomen.aspx, on June 8, 2010.
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment Database from the Current Population Survey (annual averages, not seasonally adjusted).