We’ve all heard about the generation gap, a term that refers loosely to different expectations, experiences, tastes and pursuits that separate young and old people.
William Frey, a demographer, highlighted an overlooked dimension of this divide – a widening diversity gap – in a Washington Post editorial last week. Simply put, older people are largely of white and European descent, while younger people are increasingly brown, black, Asian, and of mixed racial and ethnic origins.
“Recent census numbers show that white babies are, for the first time, a minority of all births, putting an exclamation point on a trend that has been building for decades,” wrote Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.
“Among Americans older than 50, 76 percent are white, and the black population, at 10 percent, is the largest minority. Among those younger than 30, 55 percent are whites. Hispanics, Asians and other nonblack minorities account for 31 percent of that age group. Younger people are much more likely to be first- and second-generation Americans of non-European ancestry and able to speak English and other languages.”
Why should this matter? The answer is that in society, as in families, young people help support those who are old. If there a sense of estrangement between the generations – or a sense of indifference – that support could become tenuous.
As Frey observes, “It is this diverse youth population that the largely white baby boomers will rely upon in their retirement years to keep paying into Social Security and Medicare.” Should youth not be prepared to assume that obligation by virtue of their values, economic circumstances or cultural antagonism, the consequences could be severe.
Yet older people seem to have what Frey calls “more than a little antipathy toward today’s diverse, younger Americans.” In a Pew Research Center survey published in November, “almost half of white boomers said the growing number of newcomers from other countries represented a threat to traditional U.S. customs and values,” he notes. Instead of embracing the generations’ interdependence, boomers appear to be largely unprepared for this vast change in America’s social fabric, Frey writes.
It’s an issue that also concerns the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, a group of academics studying how social institutions should change to accommodate the needs of a growing older population.
“Many scholars wonder if people who are middle aged will continue to support entitlement programs for the elderly,” said Dr. John Rowe, chair of the MacArthur Aging Network, earlier this year. “Our group doesn’t think that’s the most important question. Instead, we’re asking whether middle-aged and young Hispanics will be willing to support older whites?”
Add to that another question: What policies are needed to solidify the ties between generations as America ages and bridge this diversity gap?
Potential solutions seem obvious. Make sure young people of color and varied ethnic backgrounds get a good education. Give them economic opportunities. Invest in their health. Give them the tools to succeed and become an integral part of society, not marginalized. Yet, it’s not at all clear whether older Americans are willing to make these kinds of commitments, financially or politically.
Frey’s editorial is an attempt to change that and help Baby Boomers understand where their interests lie. Given the demographic realities upon us, he argues:
“Advancement of our young people into middle-class jobs at all skill levels is essential to future economic growth. That growth is, in turn, essential to our country’s ability to provide opportunities and social supports. Absent these investments, we are looking at a society whose members will be fighting over pieces of a shrinking pie.”
That is a very sobering prospect indeed for anyone concerned about our future and the prospects for our elderly population.