Brown, Gray, and Urban

Cities are where America will—or won't—find common ground between the two giant generations reshaping the nation.

Immigrants await examination at Ellis Island. (National Journal)

Cities have always been America's crucibles of change. When millions of European immigrants recast the nation's identity during the Melting Pot era a century ago, they landed and lived mostly in cities. Today, the United States is living through the most profound demographic change since that time—and cities again represent the front line.

In our era, the United States is experiencing two demographic transitions: It is growing more diverse, especially in its youth population, and it is also aging, as the predominantly white baby boomers move toward retirement. A compelling report released Friday from the University of Southern California's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), Talking 'Bout Our Generations, underscores that it is mostly in metropolitan areas where these two generations will find common ground—or not. (The USC report was funded by the Generations Initiative, a philanthropic effort that has also supported National Journal's Next America project.)

+ Immigrants await examination at Ellis Island. (Library of Congress)The twin demographic transitions are widening what analysts call a "cultural generation gap" between the diversifying youth population (the Census Bureau projects that minorities will become a majority of America's under-18 population in this decade) and a senior population that remains about 80 percent white. These two giant blocks—what I've called "the brown and the gray"—have become the competing poles of American politics, with Democratic-leaning younger minorities supporting increased public spending, particularly in areas such as education and health care, and older whites, who are increasingly Republican, mostly resisting it.

That contrast is especially visible in and around cities. As the report documents, minorities already make up the majority of young people in 53 of the nation's 150 largest metropolitan areas, and at least 40 percent in 26 more. (Young people of color are especially dominant in the biggest cities.) Meanwhile, whites constitute a majority of seniors in all but four of the largest metro areas and at least three-fifths of seniors in all but 12.

Though their politics have diverged, the destinies of these two giant generations remain intertwined. Several studies project that minorities will provide all of the nation's net new workers through 2030. And as the overall population ages, those workers must shoulder the taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare for a swelling number of (mostly white) retirees, notes PERE director Manuel Pastor, who coauthored the study. "We are creating a group of adults that [will] need to be far more productive "¦ to support a larger share of retired adults," he says. "That means we need people to get a better start in life and to have a much sharper trajectory to higher earnings, because they will be supporting more people with their taxes."

Instead, the opposite is happening. In 1979, households headed by someone between 25 and 34 had a median income only 2 percent lower than households led by those between 55 and 64. Now the younger households earn fully 18 percent less than the older ones; in inflation-adjusted dollars, younger households are worse off than in 1979. The financial crash's long aftermath partly explains that deterioration. But it also reflects the continuing shortfall in earnings and educational attainment among the young minorities who represent a growing portion of the younger population.

While African-American and Hispanic education levels are improving, the share of adults in both groups with four-year college degrees still lags far behind whites in all major cities. That erodes their ability to compete for jobs even in the cities most effectively generating them. In an especially compelling analysis, the report shows that fast-growth cities are relying more on importing well-educated workers from elsewhere than on educating their own residents. In all ten cities that have created the most jobs since 2000, the share of adults with college degrees born in the same state lags behind—often well behind—the share of college-educated adults who have come from elsewhere in the United States.

This pattern can't persist indefinitely, because most of America's kids are being born in fast-growth cities, and most of them are nonwhite: Eventually there won't be enough (mostly white) young college graduates to lure from elsewhere. That means cities will need to equip more of their own kids. To achieve that, the report argues, cities must invest more in enhancing prospects for low-income kids through everything from expanded preschool to improved transportation options. As a first step toward action, the authors praise initiatives in places like Seattle, Minneapolis, and Charlotte to chart local disparities and spur conversations about closing them.

The paradox facing cities is that the economic inequalities threatening them are rooted in national and international forces (like global competition) mostly beyond their control. Yet, as Pastor notes, the consequences of those trends are most visible locally, which makes it easier "for people to recognize their common destiny." That awareness has spurred a surge of local initiatives aimed at economic inclusion, like the push to raise municipal minimum-wage levels. But the United States isn't likely to produce broadly shared growth until both our national and local policies recognize that there is no economic security for the gray without economic opportunity for the brown.