Readings: The State of Metropolitan America

The Brookings Institution's "State of Metropolitan America" offers a look at the demographic future of America's 100 largest metro areas. In this post to kick off a series: the "cultural generation gap."
by | July 8, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

Washington, D.C., is a report-a-day town. One of the challenges of being a reporter here is deciding which reports to ignore, which to skim and which to sit down and try to absorb. The Brookings Institution's Metroplitan Policy Program's report, State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation, released last month, falls into the last category. This is an important report, one that offers a fascinating look into the changing demographics of America's one hundred largest metropolitan areas.

With this post, Governing is inaugurating a new "readings" feature. Every two weeks (or so), I will be highlighting new books or papers of interest to state and local government officials — or just to me. (I reserve the right to amuse and entertain you too.) Occasionally, other Governing contributors and perhaps even public officials will offer readings as well. We'll also try to involve the authors themselves in our discussions. Next week, I'll be conducting an interview with the Brookings authors of this report (day and time TBD). If you've got the time, join me in reading the 168-page report (PDF). I'll try to ask your questions and include their answers in my Q & A. Or read on here. Over the course of the next week, I'll be writing several posts about the parts of the report that interested me most. Now on to the report!

The report's primary theme is straightforward: "Our nation's large metro areas reamain at the cutting edge of the nation's continued growth." Between 2000 and 2009, the authors note, the hundred largest metro regions "grew by a combined 10.5 percent, versus 5.8 percent int he rest of the country." Nine chapters follow, covering the following subjects: population and migration, race and ethnicity, immigration, age, househlands and families, educational attainment, work, income and poverty, and commuting.

Let's jump right into one of the most striking findings — the coming demographic divide between an aging, predominantly white population and a youthful, predominantly minority population who will have to take care of them.

Some immigration background: Immigrants accounted for one-third of total U.S. population growth in the 2000s. Nearly a quarter of all U.S. children born in 2008 had at least one immigrant parent. Thanks to the higher-than-average birth rate of immigrants (and the continuing growth in native-born, non-white Americans) the United States will become a majority-minority nation sometime around the year 2042. The map below shows the metro areas with the highest senior growth rates. (Note: the Northeast and Florida still have much larger absolute levels of seniors.)

These seniors, like all older Americans, are preponderantly white. The next generation of children growing up in these cities (i.e., the people who will pay and care for them into old age) are predominantly minorities.

The authors of the Brookings report put it thusly:

[O]ne of the distinguishing features of U.S. population is the juxtaposition of its racially and ethnically diverse young population and its largely white older population.These differences will become more muted over time as younger generations age into adulthood and, eventually, into middle and old age. For the present, however, metro areas that have attracted large numbers of hispanics and Asians display something of a “cultural generation gap,” more pronounced than that which exists at the national level (shown in figure 2). The distinctions are most noticeable above and below the 40 year-old mark.

In Los Angeles, the authors note, less than a quarter of children are white, as are only 27 percent of those aged 18 to 39. In contrast, "40 percent of the older middle-aged population is white, as is more than half of the senior population." Atlanta has similar disinctions ("with African Americans assuming a more prominent role in the gap.") The report continues,

This cultural generation gap is even more pronounced in many of the metropolitan areas beyond Los Angeles that have “majority-minority” child populations (see the race/ethnicity chapter). in Riverside, for instance, about seven in 10 children are non-white or Hispanic, while almost seven in 10 seniors are white. Phoenix, long a haven for Midwestern migrant retirees, shows sharp disparities between its 85 percent white senior population and its 44 percent white child population. Setting public priorities and fostering social cohesion in these and other regions may take on added challenges due to their unique racial/ethnic overlay.

This last sentence is an understatement. Illegal immigrants may already be the most contentious issue in American politics: just look at the debate around Arizona's attempts to restrict illegal immigration. Now consider that Arizonan seniors will soon be dependent on a minority population to care for and support them. No wonder the authors highlight a generational culture gap!

To underwrite the costly retirement and medical benefits of todays' Boomers, the next generation of workers will need to be more productive than ever before. How are today's Boomers preparing younger generations to care for them? Poorly.

The single best way to provide for that is by educating workers better. This is something the United States has long done very well. Every generation has been more educated than its predecessor. In 1990, for instance, a quarter of Americans had a post-secondary degree. In 2008, a third did. So far, so good. But as Alan Berube notes in chapter six, "Educational Attainment," some alarming fissures are appearing.

"[Y]ounger adults, especially in large metro areas, are not registering the same high levels of degree attainment as their predecessors," writes Berube. Here's a graphic that shows metro areas where the newest generation of workers are less skilled than older generations.

Worse, Berube notes that an educational skills gap is opening: "The African American and hispanic groups projected to make up a growing share of our future workforce now lag their white and Asian counterparts in large metro areas on bachelor’s degree attainment by more than 20 percentage points."

Could skilled immigrants field the gap? Given current immigration trends, in some parts of the country, the answer to this question is probably yes. But not in the Southwest.

What would a reasonable policy response to this looming "cultural generation gap" be? How will a young minority population that may be denied the educational opportunities preceding generations enjoyed be able to care for and relate to the growing cohort of overwhelmingly white retirees? That's one of the questions I plan to ask the folks at Brookings. Send me your questions too!

My next installment: Green Dreams, Exurban Realities.