A Nation in Full
Within days, America will pass the 300 million mark in population. Behind the numbers, the changes are dramatic. A look at the biggest:
Among the folks now making their home here are Bill and Mary Lou Bryden, who moved to Wilmington from Britain six years ago when Bill retired from Lockheed, where he worked on air-traffic-control automation systems. In addition to the great boating opportunities, "we really loved the fact this was a college town," says Bill, 71. The Brydens hardly fit the "round of golf, dinner at 4 o'clock" stereotypes of retirees. Bill serves on the local transportation board, a railroad museum board, a charity board, and a bank board. Mary Lou, 70, still designs and sells stained-glass windows. "You move here with different talents and abilities, and the city wants you to keep using them," she says.
There's no doubt that seniors have been a boost to economic activity. Prof. William Hall, senior economist at the Center for Business and Economics Services at UNCW, estimates that retirees-often well-to-do-generate $2 in economic activity for every $1 they spend. And there are indirect benefits, too. Connie Majure-Rhett, president of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, says it's no coincidence the area's health services are getting an upgrade. The New Hanover Regional Medical Center, based in Wilmington, is undergoing a $200 million expansion. As a matter of fact, Saffo says he's hard-pressed to think of any downside to the flood of seniors here.
A CHALLENGING FUTURE
Demographers say America's growth will only accelerate further. By around 2043, or in less than another 40 years, the nation's population is expected to reach 400 million. And many of the trends now altering the American landscape will become even more pronounced.
The South and West will be home to roughly two thirds of the country's population: The Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, for instance, are projected to merge, and the population of those regions is projected to double to 10 million.
Demographers expect that the impact of births by new immigrants in coming years will be an even larger force than the impact of immigrants actually crossing the border. For the 2000-2005 period, Latino births surpassed the number of new Latino immigrants nationally for the first time since the 1960s. "I expect that over the next 50 years, we'll see more Latino births than immigrants," says Passel. "In the next 100 million [in population], the role of future immigration will be a bit less." And according to one calculation, those children will help push the country to the brink of becoming a "majority minority" nation, just as California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas are now. Whites could make up just about half of the population, down from two thirds now. The black population could grow 50 percent, and the Hispanic and Asian populations could each more than double. "For the past half of the 20th century, we were more or less a suburban middle-class society," says demographer Frey, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. But now, he says, we're headed back to more of a melting pot.
Over the course of the next 25 years, the over-65 population is expected to double to 71.5 million. As a result, the Social Security and Medicare systems are headed for trouble. Each year, the overseers of Social Security and Medicare, the two largest entitlement programs, warn that they're on the cusp of bankruptcy. Why the pessimism? Starting somewhere around 2017 or 2019, the Social Security program will pay out more money in benefits than it takes in from taxes. Then by around 2041 to 2046, the Social Security trust fund will run dry. There are plans to change how Social Security works-the retirement age, for example, could be extended or future initial benefit increases could be linked to inflation rather than wages-but the fight is sure to be bruising.
Medicare starts drawing down its reserves a whole lot sooner-in 2010. If the national debt sounds staggering, at $8.5 trillion, try Medicare's projected shortfall of $32.4 trillion over 75 years. Not only does Medicare have to deal with the same demographic challenges as Social Security; it's also plagued by the complex and politically vexing problem of rising healthcare costs. "I could give you a plan to fix Social Security," says Rand Corp. economist Michael Hurd. "But nobody has a very good plan for fixing healthcare." Turns out the new America has more than its share of both opportunities and challenges. Meeting the latter may determine how quickly America reaches its next milestone.
With James M. Pethokoukis