The Next Generation of Legislatures

By Jones, Rich | State Legislatures, July-August 1999 | Go to article overview

The Next Generation of Legislatures


Jones, Rich, State Legislatures


Bombarded by rapidly advancing technology and sure to be affected by coming shifts in demographics, legislators and the public may find 21st century legislatures considerably changed.

State legislatures begin the new century with a somewhat uncertain future. Will they remain, as they have for more than 200 years, the primary mechanism Americans use to resolve political disputes, craft public policy and create laws? Or will citizens push them aside in favor of more direct means of exercising their democratic rights and responsibilities? State legislatures of the 21st century will be shaped by several societal forces - most notably shifts in the nation's demographics and the continuing revolution in technology.

DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGE

America in 2025 will be older and more diverse than it is today. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2020, those 65 years and older will comprise more than 16 percent of the population compared with about 13 percent now. By 2030, one out of every five Americans will be 65 or older.

Growth in the majority white population is expected to slow in the coming two decades. By 2020, nonHispanic whites are projected to make up about 64 percent of the population, down from almost 74 percent in 1995. Blacks, who comprise about 13 percent of the population now, will grow to 14 percent in 2020. Hispanics will account for most of the nation's population growth between 1995 and 2020. They are projected to be about 16 percent of the population in 2020, up from about 10 percent today. By 2010, Hispanics will be the second largest ethnic group in the United States.

Hispanics will be our youngest population group in 2020 while nonHispanic whites will continue to be the oldest. By 2030, over half of all American kids will probably be racial or ethnic minorities, while three out of four people 65 and older will be nonHispanic whites.

This diversity will not be evenly distributed throughout the states, according to Bud Hodgkinson, co-director of the Center for Demographic Policy of the Institute for Educational Leadership. Currently 80 percent of U.S. counties are 95 percent white with minority populations concentrated in 200 of our nation's 3,000 counties. This concentration is expected to continue into the first part of the 21st century.

These demographic shifts will affect legislatures in several ways. It is likely that legislatures in 2025 will reflect the diversity of the society at large. The total number of African American, Hispanic and Asian legislators will continue to increase. In addition, the number of women legislators also will rise. Given the aging of America, more retirees will serve in state legislatures. They are already a growing number in some chambers.

Inter-ethnic and racial politics will influence the dynamics within some state legislatures. For example, coalitions across ethnic groups are likely to become increasingly important in elections and in organizing legislatures.

Inter-ethnic conflicts over policies could also increase as an older, white population competes with younger Hispanics, Asians and blacks for resources. And if people continue to become more conservative and to vote more frequently as they age, it is possible that older, more conservative whites will be disproportionately represented in state legislatures.

GENERATIONAL CHANGE

Demographers group people into generations based on the year they were born. Researchers have found that different generations exhibit differences in terms of their outlook on life, their acceptance of authority and their approach to leadership. Because members of the same generation grow up in the same era, they share a similar set of experiences. As demographer Claire Raines told a recent legislative conference, "People resemble their times more than their parents."

During the first quarter of the new century, legislatures will have members from four different generations with four distinct perspectives. …

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