'Brown and Gray' Dynamics

New Census data reveal divergent age profiles for a youthful population of color and an aging white population.


The demographic revolution transforming the U.S. belongs to the young.

That's the unmistakable message from the latest population estimates that the Census Bureau released late last month.

The Census found that along every rung of the generational ladder, the younger the age group, the larger the share of the population comprised by people of color. And that could have huge implications for policies focused on early childhood and children.

"In the next several decades ,we are going to become much more diverse as we advance [in diversity] from the younger ages to the older ages," says demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America.

"So all kinds of policies that deal with education, with younger people in the workforce, with families, with the children of young families, all of those support systems are going to have to change, because most of them were developed at a time when the younger population was very different. It was mostly white, and there was the idea that [a family] was an 'Ozzie and Harriet' family even if there wasn't one," Frey says.

In that transition, the Census numbers show the nation crossing another population milestone: As of July 1, 2014, kids of color, for the first time represent an absolute majority (50.22 percent) of Americans younger than age 5, and almost half (49.1 percent) of those ages 5-9.

As the first chart at left shows, the population of color then declines across each older five-year cohort that the Census tracks. Initially, the decline occurs only slowly: the nonwhite share of the population exceeds 40 percent for each five-year group through age 44. But in older groups, the non-white share dwindles much more quickly: minorities represent less than a third of Americans ages 50-54, only about one-fourth of those aged 65-69, and exactly one-fifth of those ages 80-84.

That steeper slope largely reflects the impact of the federal laws that severely limited immigration into the U.S. between 1924 and 1965, when Congress eased the restrictions.

Whites present the inverse profile. Whites comprise their largest share of the population among the very oldest seniors ages 85 and older: 82 percent. But then the white population share declines at every five-year rung down the generational ladder. Whites fall below three-fourths of the population in the 60-64 age group, slip below three-fifths in the 40-44 cohort, dip to 51 percent in the 5-9 group, and fall below a majority in the under-5 category.

Frey notes that not only are whites declining as a share of the youth population, but the absolute number of younger whites also is falling. Using the latest Census release, he has calculated that from 2000-2014, the number of whites younger than 20 has declined in the nation overall, in 46 states, in 88 percent of America's counties, and in 84 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Nonwhites already comprise a majority of the 20-and-younger population in 13 states, 37 of those metropolitan areas, and about one-fifth of the nation's counties, Frey calculated.

As if ascending on an escalator, today's burgeoning nonwhite youth population will steadily translate into a growing share of older age cohorts over the next several decades, Frey also notes. "As we move these projections ahead, what we see for the under-5 population today is going to just move up the age structure," he says. In fact, the pace of change should accelerate because the large nonwhite presence in the under-10 population today means that those communities will likely represent a majority of the families forming, and bearing children, 20 and 25 years from now. "When you look at the people who will be forming households, it will make this [change] even more prominent," Frey says.

Viewed from another angle, these dynamics frame a strikingly divergent age profile between a predominantly youthful minority population, and an increasingly aging white population—what's becoming known as the "Brown and the Gray."

Kids younger than 10 comprise almost 17 percent of America's total nonwhite population, compared to just 10 percent of whites. Almost 3-in-10 minorities are younger than 18, compared to about 2-in-10 whites. Nearly half of all nonwhite Americans (48.8 percent) are younger than 30, compared to only about 1-in-3 whites (34.4 percent).

Conversely, 41 percent of all whites are 50 years and older, compared to just 23 percent of non-whites. Seniors 65 and older represent about 18 percent of all whites, more than double their share (8.3 percent) among minorities.

A major implication of these changes, Frey says, is that attracting and providing opportunity to minority families will become increasingly important to not only in traditional strongholds of diversity such as the Southwest, but also in Midwestern states forecast to face steady aging and decline of their white population.

"There's a large number of states where we've already had this [youth] diversity—California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico—but the rubber is also going to hit the road in the middle of the country where we haven't seen this very much before," Frey says.

These findings come from the Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program, an report produced annually to update the results of the decennial Census. Overall, as of July 1, 2014, the Census estimates the nation's total population at 318.9 million, with non-Hispanic whites comprising 62 percent (197.9 million) and nonwhites 38 percent (121 million).

Libby Isenstein and Janie Boschma contributed to this article