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If Rip van Winkle had slipped into his deep sleep 20 years ago and awakened today, he would have missed a stunning American revolution — a demographic one.
The USA now is:
• Led by a biracial president who will be sworn in Monday for a second term.
• More crowded (88 million more people).
• More diverse (Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the largest minority).
• More urban (more than 80% live in or near cities).
• More settled in the Sun Belt (growth in the South and West accounted for 85% of the gains in the last decade).
Van Winkle probably would be even more slack-jawed at the cultural upheaval before his eyes.
There are “childless cities” and even more childless neighborhoods because people are having fewer babies.
There are more single people. The median age of marriage is at a new high (28.6 for men and 26.6 for women). More people are living alone or with unmarried partners, and less than half of households are traditional husband-and-wife arrangements.
What may shock our folk hero more: The latest Census data count same-sex couples and people who are multiracial.
“What’s constant in this country is its ability to adapt — adapt to people with changing backgrounds, people with changing attitudes,” says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution.
For most of the nation’s history, black-white race relations have dominated. Now, the surge in the number of Hispanics — who can be of any race but are counted as a group — has changed the equation. So has the rapid growth of Asians.
“But Hispanics really are a very big part of America’s present and future,” Frey says. “And they’re not clustered in one area. They’ve been fanning out to all parts of the United States, and by moving into new parts of the country ... they’re becoming accepted by these communities."
Fueled by immigration and births to immigrants, diversity truly is at a tipping point.
“When one demographic group reaches one-third of the population, the group — if united — becomes very powerful and large enough to affect the election outcome,” says demographer Cheryl Russell, former editor in chief of American Demographics and now editorial director of New Strategist Publications. “This is what happened in the last election.”
Consider: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gained an unprecedented advantage among whites but lost largely by underestimating the political clout of blacks, Asians and Hispanics, according to a Brookings analysis of the 2012 election. President Obama carried those groups by a margin of 80%.
“The role of minority groups, especially Hispanics, has, frankly, shocked a lot of people when they looked at the result of this election,” Frey says. “People thought this was going to happen 20 years from now."
Change is happening fast. Just since 2000, the percentage of non-whites went from 31% to 37%. But among the under-45 group, share of whites will slip under 50% in 15 years. Among kids, it will happen in six years.
The way we live has been reshaped not just by this growing diversity but also by the aging of the population and by the Great Recession that the nation is emerging from.
Average household size is at a record low of 2.55 people. At the same time, the number of homes where several generations live under one roof is going up — a reaction to unemployment and the housing meltdown.
Yes, crowded homes are up and average household size is down:
It seems anything goes today. There’s a hodgepodge of living arrangements, from grandparents, kids and grandkids living under one roof to same-sex couples, blended families and living solo.
Even though the Millennial generation that follows Gen X is even bigger than the Baby Boomers, we’re in the thick of a baby bust. Births are down 9% from their peak just five years ago, a decline attributed to a poor economy that has kept immigrants away and forced others to postpone starting families.
“The fertility rate has fallen among young women in particular,” Russell says. “The economy is driving more young people into school, causing men and women to delay marriage.”
If more opt for academia over matrimony, the result is predictable: Education levels are soaring and women are making great strides. Women now are top degree earners at every level of higher education. More than half of Ph.D.s are earned by women.
Men may be losing ground in the diploma race, but they’re gaining on the longevity front. Although still trailing that of women, men’s life expectancy is rising at a faster rate, thanks largely to healthier living (less smoking, more exercise) and medical advances.
The 2010 Census found that 80% of the 53,364 people age 100 and up are women. Centenarians are up 5.8% in the past decade.
So, to all those who may have slept through this demographic revolution, wake up to the new face of America. Says Russell: “We are going through a major transformation.”
Haya El Nasser is Census and demographics reporter for USA TODAY.