Diversity and Our Common Future: Race, Ethnicity, and the Older American

By Treas, Judith; Carreon, Daisy | Generations, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Diversity and Our Common Future: Race, Ethnicity, and the Older American


Treas, Judith, Carreon, Daisy, Generations


An in-depth look at diversity and the changing racial makeup of America's older population-what do they mean for their contemporaries and their children?

Ceferina, a 70-year-old Filipina who shared her life story for a research project on older immigrants, could be the future face of aging in America. Foreign-born and non-white, Ceferina mixes comfortably with neighbors of other races. With her male companion, who is white, she embraces life and aging in the United States, saying:

I have a boyfriend who's a senior citizen and lives at the same apartment [building] and he is all alone. And if we are all alone, we call each other. He is a Caucasian. He calls me if he wants to eat outside or go to the park. We are not lonely when we are together. He is 73 years old and I am 70. We keep us feel young.

Growing racial and ethnic diversity is a reality in the United States. Older adults who are immigrants, non-white, or ethnic minorities will become increasingly common. With the falling of some barriers that have historically divided groups, older adults from diverse backgrounds could share a common future. Outside immigrant enclaves, color lines are fading, so that race and ethnicity may well play a different, perhaps more symbolic, role in the lives of tomorrow's older Americans.

Gray and White

Today, gray is the new white. Eight in ten older Americans are non-Hispanic whites. Other groups are minorities claiming small shares of the older population. Table 1 (on page 39) shows that blacks make up 8.5 percent of Americans ages 65 and older, while 6.8 percent are Hispanic and 3.3 percent are Asian. Other census categories- American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI)-add up to less than 1 percent each. The same is true for multiracial Americans.

The younger population tells a different story. Among Americans younger than age 65, fewer than two-thirds are non-Hispanic whites. One-third is minority. Unlike elders, the younger population has more Hispanics than it does blacks (17 percent versus 13 percent). Asian Americans make up nearly 5 percent. While still small, the population shares for other groups such as AIAN and NHPI are about twice as large for the young as the old. The same is true for mixed-race Americans.

Fueled by immigration, Hispanics and Asians are changing the balance between majority and minority, just as Southern and Eastern European immigrants did a century ago when their numbers overtook those for immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. In the total population, whites could lose their majority status as early as 2042 (Perez and Hirschman, 2009). Whites would become the largest minority in a population with no other group topping 50 percent. New Mexico, California, Texas, and Hawaii are already "minority-majority" states.

The younger population is a bellwether of changes to come. Immigration is driven largely by young people from Asia and Latin America, drawn by economic opportunities. The young are more racially and ethnically diverse than the cohort of those ages 65 and older. Inevitably, the young grow old. In the future, the makeup of older workers, grandparents, church elders, and candidates for bypass surgery will change-reflecting the greater diversity of today's children and younger adults.

What's Ahead?

Figure 1 (on page 40) shows how the distribution of racial and ethnic groups in the older population across the United States could change between 2010 and 2050. Projections are not set in stone. They rely on assumptions about future fertility, mortality, and immigration. Nonetheless, they point to growing diversity for tomorrow's older population, and they showcase the major role that immigration plays.

Much of the growth in the older population will come from Hispanics and Asians, populations with high immigration levels. The share for older Hispanics is projected to more than double between 2010 and 2050-from 7. …

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