Contrary to the anxiety, hype and alarm circulating in the media and among some government officials, business leaders and educators, America’s demographic sky is not falling. It’s simply changing, as it is across much of the world.
The rapid growth rates of America’s population during the past few centuries are over. The U.S. population increased nearly four-fold during the 20th century, gaining more than 200 million Americans. The 1990s, in particular, saw the largest numerical increase (approximately 33 million) of any decade in the country’s history.
Replicating the past century’s population growth in the 21st century is a highly unlikely event. Such an outcome would mean a U.S. population of more than 1 billion by 2100.
America’s future population growth rates, even with continuing immigration, are expected to be slower than the recent past. Projections expect America’s population to increase by slightly more than 50 percent during the 21st century, from 282 million to 434 million.
The high U.S. fertility rates of the recent past are also over. With women and men able to effectively decide and plan on the number, spacing and timing of their children, America's low birth rates are likely here to stay.
The fertility rate in the U.S. during the baby boom, which was 3.6 births per woman in the late 1950s, has declined to a record low of 1.6 births per woman. The provisional number of U.S. births in 2020 is 3.6 million, down 4 percent from 2019, and the lowest level since 1979.
The high U.S. death rates of the past are fortunately over as well. America’s infant, child, maternal and adult mortality rates declined remarkably during the 20th century. Average U.S. life expectancy at birth has increased from 47 years in 1900 to 77 years in 2000. Also, growing numbers of American men and women are surviving to advanced ages and remaining in good health.
Of course, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic negatively impacted America’s mortality and morbidity levels. Unfortunately, more than a half a million U.S. deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. The pandemic is estimated to have reduced U.S. life expectancy at birth by several years, with significant differentials persisting among major groups.
America’s relatively youthful population of the past is also over. Whereas the median age of the U.S. population in 1970 was 28 years, it increased to 38 years by 2020 and it is expected to be 43 years by midcentury. In addition, most of the relatively large numbers of baby boomers have reached retirement ages.
Immigration, which contributed significantly to the past growth of the U.S. population, is expected to continue to do so in the future. Since the nation's establishment in 1776, immigration is estimated to account for approximately 58 percent of America’s population growth.
While subject to the policies of the White House and Congress, U.S. immigration, both legal and illegal, is expected to continue throughout the 21st century, with the Biden administration planning to significantly expand the legal immigration system. In the main scenario of the Census Bureau projections, legal immigration levels of the recent past are assumed to continue at approximately 1.1 million immigrants per year.
The number of U.S. immigrants has reached a record high of about 45 million, or roughly 14 percent of the population, which is close to the record high of nearly 15 percent in 1890. Census Bureau projections expect the proportion of foreign-born residents in the country to continue rising and reach more than 17 percent by 2060.
The ethnic composition of today’s U.S. immigrants is also different from before. The numerical dominance of immigrants from Europe throughout much of America’s history is over. For example, whereas in 1960 the top five U.S. immigrant groups were from Italy, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Poland, the top five in 2018 were from Mexico, India, China, the Philippines and El Salvador.
America’s rural past is also largely over. Whereas at the start of the 20th century the majority of Americans, or 60 percent, continued to reside in rural areas, by its close nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. Also, most Americans are now living in considerably larger urban agglomerations than in the past.
Very importantly, the changes in the levels of fertility, mortality and immigration are impacting America’s population age structure. The proportion of America’s elderly, those aged 65 years and older, has tripled over the past 100 years and is at a record high of one-sixth of the country’s population and expected to reach one-quarter of the population by 2065.
America’s changing demographic sky is neither an aberration nor unique. It is part of the changing global demographic sky of slower population growth happening over much of the world.
With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, the last major region to pass through the demographic transition, countries worldwide are experiencing low death rates, increased longevity and low birth rates, with many having below replacement fertility. The demographic outcome is slow and declining rates of population growth.
Again, to be absolutely clear, America’s demographic sky is not falling, it’s simply changing, as it is across much of the world. So, Henny-Penny, there is no need to panic, mislead others and aid opportunists. Bemoaning America’s changing demographic sky is a futile endeavor and will certainly not restore the rapid rates and high levels of the past that are largely over.
America needs to recognize and fully understand the changing 21st century demographic sky in order to plan and adjust to the wide-ranging social, economic, environmental and climatic benefits and challenges unfolding across the nation and the planet. Doing so will meaningfully contribute to ensuring the United States continues to play its essential leading role in the world.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."