Americanos Nuevos

Author: Roberto Suro


It began in the 1970s, unnoticed.

As baby boomers came of age, they put off having children; many never had any.

A flow of immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, began to grow.

Two trends, entirely unrelated in their origins, gathered momentum across decades.

One created a dearth of people.

The other produced an abundance.

In this decade they come together. In the next their confluence transforms the nation.

This is a done deal. It is time to get ready.

History rarely affords a society the opportunity to prepare for important transitions. Often, unintended interactions and unanticipated results only become clear when historians construct patterns in retrospect. This case is different because the driving forces are demographic and readily measured. It is just a matter of counting people. We know that the baby boomers are headed for retirement without having bred enough children to replace themselves. And we know that the gap is being filled by Latino immigrants and their offspring. Put the two together, and we know that there will be important consequences for schools and universities, employers and marketers and every level of government.

Predicting those consequences is not so easy. What is happening in the United States is unique in modern history: A native-born age cohort of unprecedented size is aging out of the workforce. Meanwhile Latino immigrants and their offspring are the largest source of new entrants to the labor market. In the first year after the U.S. economy started adding jobs in early 2003, foreign-born Hispanic workers or their children accounted for about a third of the net increase in employment. That share can only increase.

The outgoing and the incoming populations differ in one important respect: education. On average, both Latino immigrants and, more importantly, their U.S.-born children have less schooling than the U.S. norm, especially if we are talking about non-Hispanic whites, that racial/ethnic majority that I am going to refer to as “Anglos” for lack of a better term. If the educational outcomes for Latino kids going through U.S. schools do not improve, the country will have a hard time keeping up the improvement in the quality of its workforce and, in turn, keeping up the productivity gains that have been so important to growth for the past decade.

The demographics are set and unchangeable. The boomers are pretty well done reproducing, and there is no way to rewind the biological clock to the 1980s and ‘90s to generate more non-Hispanic babies. However, much else can still be changed. As a society, we have some say over our education system, our economy, our government institutions and politics. We are embarked on a journey, and there is no going back. But we can decide the course we take and where we end up. We need to look at the landscape that lies ahead and identify the challenges to come.

But first we need to ask, how did we get here?

Start with the boomers, that massive generation born between 1946 and 1964. They came of age at a time when urbanization and increasing affluence were producing lower birth rates here, as they have in all kinds of societies. Factors unique to the moment also contributed, including the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, the rise of the two-income household, the self-absorption of the “me decade” and even the improvement in levels of education, which added college tuition to most parents’ calculations of the costs of raising children. The net result was that annual U.S. birth rates, which had been more than 20 births per thousand people since 1946, began to drop after 1964. The rates hit a low of 13.6 in 1975. It was not until the late 1980s that the boomers got around to producing the baby boom echo, and it was a faint echo at that. From 1988 to 1992 annual birth rates moved just above 15 births per thousand.

As a result, the boomers have moved into late middle age without many natural successors following close behind it. The easiest way to visualize this is with a demographic tool called an “age pyramid.” In the natural course of things, a population should be smallest in the oldest age categories and largest in the youngest, creating a distribution that can be graphed as a pyramid. In the age pyramid for the Anglo population, the baby boom generation and the decline in fertility that followed it have combined to produce an unusual case of midriff bulge.

The total population of the United States has a much more natural slope to its age pyramid. That’s because the Hispanic population, which is much younger, fills in the bottom. That, too, is the result of a demographic trajectory that started in the middle of the last century. When the farm boys went off to fight World War II, the government arranged for the import of temporary workers from Mexico known as braceros. The ready supply of cheap labor proved so convenient to farmers and fruit growers that the program was continued until 1962, by which time more than 3 million Mexicans had followed well-worn routes north to earn dollar wages. When the bracero program was shut down, the legal flow ended, but the migration continued illicitly with little government intervention.

In 1965, Washington overhauled a system of national origin quotas that had tightly restricted legal immigration from anywhere except Western Europe. As a result of these measures, a steady flow of migration from Mexico, both legal and not, began to take shape in the 1970s and has steadily gained momentum since then. Political conditions in Cuba and Central America have prompted additional flows. The numbers are hard to track because over the years many migrants, Mexicans in particular, have gone back and forth across the border and because a sizeable portion of the flow does not operate through legal channels. Nonetheless, the net effect is clear. In 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau counted 11.5 million more foreign-born Latinos as part of the resident population than it had in 1970.

Migration, however, accounts for only part of Latinos’ demographic impact on the United States, and it is neither the largest nor the most important impact. For the most part, picking up and leaving home to go to another country is an activity pursued by young adults. That has been true across history and around the world. Most migrants to the United States come from countries in the developing world where big families are the norm. The result is a fertility rate for foreign-born Hispanics in the United States that is almost double that of Anglos (3.51 versus 1.84 live births per woman).

In the first quarter of the 21st century, the United States will experience the full demographic effect of all the immigration that took place in the last quarter of the 20th century. The impact will come not from the migrants but from their children. This is what demographers refer to as the “second generation”—people born in the United States of at least one parent who was born abroad (the first generation is the immigrant generation, the people who were born outside the country). Despite record levels of immigration, the Latino second generation grew faster than the first in the 1990s, and that trend will continue. So larger numbers of Latino immigrants will produce larger numbers of second-generation Latinos.

This wave of demographic change has been gathering momentum and is now about to make itself felt. Between 2000 and 2020, the Latino second generation is expected to grow by nearly 120 percent, adding some 11.7 million people to the population, according to a series of estimates produced by the Pew Hispanic Center. Over those two decades, the children of Latino immigrants alone will account for 78 percent of the increase in the total U.S. school-age population (ages 5 to 19). If it were not for the Hispanic contribution, the school-age population would be shrinking in the first two decades of this century. Even if it were big enough, the baby boom echo is not old enough to fill the gap with its own children.

The story is much the same when it comes to the labor force. With the boomers moving into retirement, the non-Hispanic population of working age will actually shrink slightly between 2010 and 2030. Meanwhile, the number of Latino workers will increase by 55 percent, and the children of immigrants will account for the lion’s share of that growth.

Given these irreversible demographic realities, it should be evident that the nation has a sizeable stake in ensuring the best possible outcomes for the children of today’s Latino immigrants. We are not talking about foreigners now but rather native-born U.S. citizens. In this regard, the policy issues that need attention are quite different from those normally associated with the Hispanic population. Whether the immigration system needs reform, whether immigrant flows are too big or too small, whether the prevalence of English and traditional American ways are in any way threatened by the influx, these are all matters worthy of debate. But they are largely irrelevant when considering the future of the second generation. These kids, who will be added to the U.S. population at a rate of more than a half a million a year in the next decade, will be the products of our institutions, our schools and our economy. Even if their parents were born somewhere else, these are our kids now.

Although it has been steadily improving since at least the 1980s, the high school dropout rate for native-born Latinos is still considerably higher than for their white peers, 14 percent versus 8 percent in 2000. The educational lag is actually more notable among those who do finish high school. While Latino high school graduates enroll in college at the same rate as Anglos, about half as many end up with bachelor’s degrees, 16 percent versus 36 percent. There are many reasons for this. Many more Hispanics come out of high school poorly prepared for college work than Anglos. But even after taking preparation into account, Latinos earn fewer degrees than their Anglo peers. Latino students come from poorer families and face greater financial obligations. They are more likely to delay the start of their college studies and prolong the process as well. Many more start out at community colleges even when they are prepared for, and aspire to, baccalaureate studies.

There seems to be no reason to insist that all young people should graduate from four-year colleges. After all, the U.S. economy offers plenty of good opportunities for workers with other qualifications, and it needs a steady supply of individuals for those jobs. But the education gap between Latinos and the Anglo majority cannot be waved away so easily for several reasons. Earnings in this country are increasingly tied to education, and the differential in rewards is widening between those who have at least a baccalaureate degree and those who do not. Thus, differences in educational outcomes translate in our society into significant differences in income and status. We know from hard experience that social costs escalate when race becomes equated with class, when a group of people that is readily distinguishable is largely relegated to an inferior social and economic status.

As a society, we struggled hard in the second half of the 20th century to break the linkage between blackness and poverty, between African-American heritage and outsider status. Much was accomplished but much also was left undone. It would seem foolhardy now to double back on our history. We have made some important progress toward fulfilling America’s promise of a society that offers equal opportunities to all. While there is room for debate on how to proceed, it does seem indubitable that the goal should be continued progress. Certainly, it would be foolhardy to relegate a new ethnic group to outsider status, particularly if that group is growing faster than any other segment of our population.

Could that happen? Latinos will never suffer the African-American fate that was shaped by centuries of slavery and segregation. But nothing so terribly dire has to occur to produce a regrettable result. If educational outcomes for U.S.-born Latino youth do not improve, they will be headed disproportionately to the lower end of the work force, and a sizeable share will be relegated to the limited horizons available to someone with less than a high school education. Changing those outcomes presents distinct but not insurmountable challenges.

For the most part, the Latino second generation is coming into U.S. schools from households where the adults have no firsthand familiarity with the U.S. education system, have limited knowledge of English and have low levels of education themselves—more than half of Latino immigrants lack a high school education. Moreover, they are coming into our schools at a time when the public education system is in the process of implementing the sweeping reforms mandated by Congress in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

This is not, however, a challenge that awaits some great intellectual breakthrough, like discovering a vaccine for the AIDS virus. Educators can and do debate the best ways to handle the children of immigrants, but there is no doubt that it can be done, that it can be done well, and that there are a number of good models out there. It is a matter of public will and a concerted effort by Latino parents, their children, the schools, political leaders and taxpayers. This can be approached entirely as a question of collective self-interest. Given the size of the Latino second generation and the crucial role it will play in the nation’s future, no altruism is necessary to realize there are benefits in ensuring these kids become the best workers, citizens and parents they can be.

They are here. They are not going away. They are our children now.

Roberto Suro is director of the Pew Hispanic Center. He has worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and as a foreign correspondent for Time magazine and The New York Times.