State of Immigrants5 min read

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University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers has spent much of the past ten years trying to show his fellow Californians how much their future depends on immigrants and their children.

At the heart of that message is the simple fact that as the boomer generation retires in the next couple of decades, the majority of the labor force will be first or second generation immigrants. There is no one else to fill the jobs, pay for the Social Security and Medicare of those retirees, no one to buy their homes.

He’s also tried – so far with little success — to get across the simple point that not all immigrants can be lumped together. The growing percentage who’ve been here twenty years or more, soon to be a majority of all our foreign-born, are not remotely the same – in skills, in homeownership, in social outlook, in citizenship — as those who crossed the border last month.

Now, in a new report on California’s complex and rapidly changing demographics, Myers and his USC colleague John Pitkin show even more clearly how outdated our collective self-image has become and how great the stakes are in getting it right.

By 2030, when today’s second-graders become part of the labor force, there will be far more seniors for those workers to support than there are now. “The ratio of seniors ages 65 and older to prime working ages (25 to 64),” they say, “is pro­jected to soar to 36.0 seniors per 100 working age in 2030, compared to 21.6 in 2010, a two-thirds increase in just 20 years.”

In the intervening years (2010-2030), virtually all of the growth in the labor force – 98 percent – is projected to come from the native-born children of immigrants. In the prior twenty years, 80 percent of the growth in the labor force was made up of immigrants.

And contrary to earlier projections and the conventional wisdom, while foreign immigration, which dropped steeply in the past five years, will increase again when the current recession ends, it will never again reach the peaks it hit in the 1980s and 1990s, not least because the Mexican birthrate is so sharply down — from 6.8 children for every woman of child-bearing age in 1970 to 2.4 now. The Mexican labor market will be far more able to absorb those workers.

Barring unforeseen events, according to the Myers-Pitkin data, the share of foreign born in California will be roughly the same in 2030as it was in 2010 – 27 percent. But a far greater percentage of the foreign-born will be long-time residents. We may even come to a point, Myers said, when we will be recruiting immigrants for our over-stressed labor force.

(It’s happened before.  During and immediately after the Civil War, Midwestern states – Missouri, Kansas, Iowa – created boards of immigration to attract settlers, and sometimes sent agents to Europe to recruit them).

What gives those findings a particularly ironic tone is that even as the Myers-Pitkin report was being released, last week’s oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court about the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law were premised on those outdated assumptions: about an ever-growing flow of illegal immigrants; about the nation’s inability to control its borders.

The Myers-Pitkin report also breaks out a new demographic class –“the training age”, young men and women 18 to 24 who are technically in the labor force but are more likely to be students or apprentices learning a trade – “the workforce of the future.”

Latinos predominate among the homegrown population in that group, Myers and Pitkin say, but all racial groups contribute. “Those raised in California are, of course, educated at the expense of California taxpayers and likely to remain in the state to the benefit of California businesses and other employers. And they will become future taxpay­ers themselves, as well as possible home buyers to strengthen the housing market.”

The implicit message here, of course, is directed especially to the older, more affluent whites who still dominate the voter rolls and have resisted the taxes to fund schools and universities for the Latinos, African Americans and Asians who constitute the growing majority of the state’s school enrollment and the population of the “training age.”

If the voters properly understood those numbers – and thus their self-interest – they’d been pushing hard to make the state’s colleges and universities more accessible and to improve the resources – in teachers, materials, facilities – that have locked California’s schools into a place near the bottom in spending among the states.

Myers and Pitkin leave no doubt that unlike in any other time in California’s history, most of the population and the workforce will be native born, not immigrants from other states or other countries. In 2010, just over half of young adults (those between 25 and 34) were natives. By 2030 it will be over 62 percent.

Again the message is clear. It’s not likely that we will ever again be able to import all the energy, skills and ambitions the state needs. If we don’t nurture them ourselves we won’t have them.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.

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