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2010 Census May Show Boomer Impact On Future Economy

When results from the 2010 Census are released next year, they will not only provide a state-by-state breakdown of population, household size and racial make-up, but no doubt confirm characteristics that have come to define the Baby Boomer generation.

2010 US Census form
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2010 US Census form

Indeed, the post-war bumper crop of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 is mostly married, overwhelming white, and far more likely to hold a college degree than their parents before them.

The vast majority (75 percent), own their own homes, most live in the south and nearly two-thirds are still employed in the workforce.

Such were among the findings of a more narrow set of statistics on the Boomer population released last fall by the Census Bureau, the first such snapshot made available in 13 years.

It’s the trends behind the data, however, that paint the most meaningful picture for how this generation continues to shape the nation, says Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a non-profit research group in Washington.

Public Policy

Despite their vast numbers (78 million), for example, Boomers increasingly fail to reflect the growing racial and socio-economic diversity of the nation.

Some 82 percent of Boomers in the Census report categorized themselves as “white alone,” compared with 76 percent of younger Americans ages 17 or under.

The younger generation today is also twice as likely to be of Hispanic origin than the Boomers before them.

In part, says Mather, that’s because the 1960s marked not only a dramatic decline in the nation’s fertility rates, but also a decade when Congress enacted legislation that opened the doors for Latin Americans and Asians, in particular, to enter the country.

“Both of these events coinciding led to an unprecedented increase in racial and ethnic minorities in our youth populations,” he says. “There is a growing rift between the generation of Baby Boomers and the younger generations, which are increasingly Latino or Asian or multi-racial.”

At the same time, the Census data reveal that nine percent of Boomers are living at or below the line of poverty, but that number jumps to nearly 15 percent among those ages 18 to 41.

US Census 2010 logo
US Census 2010 logo

Such a demographic disparity between the boomer and those that followed could present a roadblock for social programs and education initiatives necessary to bring tomorrow’s labor force up to speed.

“Older Americans do vote and the question is whether they will support policies to improve education programs that help these younger generations who increasingly look much different than they do,” says Mather.

“It’s an important issue because this younger generation will make up most of the growth in our labor force and it’s this very diverse population that’s going to be supporting the Boomers in old age. It’s important that they have the tools to succeed, but it’s not clear if we’ll have the necessary supports and policies in place to help them do that.”

Migration

Though the 55-plus-year old crowd has historically downsized its homes and made a break for warmer climes, the housing crunch and 401(k) losses are also forcing many Boomers to postpone retirement and stay put longer.

According to the Census report, the top five states with the largest number of Baby Boomers are California, Texas, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania—no big surprise.

As a percentage of Boomers in their total population, however, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Montana and Connecticut all pull out ahead to claim the top five spots.

Indeed, analysts at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, found the migration rate in 2007 and 2008 reached its lowest level since World War II and remained flat through 2008 and 2009.

Northern cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, saw out-migration shrink dramatically from 2005 and 2008, while Georgia's senior population is projected to increase more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2020 as a growing number of Boomers “age in place”—creating demand for health, transportation, and senior-oriented services.

“What’s helping to drive these migration patterns is the fact that Baby Boomers are entering an age group where people are much less likely to move,” says Mather. “The tendency for retirees is to move out of crowded cities and into mid-size [cities] or rural areas with amenities, but there’s a lot less of that going on because Boomers are still working. It’s a complete reversal from what we saw earlier in the decade.”

Congressional Fallout

If current migration trends continue, states and regions face serious economic consequences, because federal aid is distributed based on population.

But the political implications would be far greater still as the reapportionment of Congressional seats will be based on the results of the 2010 census, says William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Florida, which was previously slated to gain three seats in Congress, would receive only one; Arizona one instead of two; and Texas four instead of three.

South Carolina and Washington, meanwhile, would each add a member to their delegation, while New York would lose only one seat rather than two.

“The roller coaster migration decade has raised and dashed the hopes of some states, while others have fared better than they feared,” writes Frey. “But it’s clear that just as we are in a low point economically, we are also in an abnormal lull with respect to migration.”

When the housing and job markets eventually recover, he notes, "so too will migration recover to levels and to destinations more in keeping with our recent past.”

Boomers And Busts

Inequality

Though Boomers are widely perceived as being well educated and affluent, controlling $7 trillion of the nation’s household wealth, data also reveal a surprising degree of inequality within the group.

And the gap is likely to widen, says Mather.

“In the 2010 census data, because of the recession, I think we’ll see a lot more inequality,” he says. “Baby Boomers are a fairly well-educated group, but not as well educated as the following Generation X group, so there’s a lot of Boomers who were really hit hard by the recession—the ones who didn’t have the education level needed to keep a good job.”

A 2004 study called “The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers” for the Russell Sage Foundation found just under one-third of early Boomer men and a little over one-fourth of early Boomer women have BAs.

Among late Boomers, only about one in four have graduated from college.

Those without a degree—often minorities who worked in the hard-hit manufacturing sector—have suffered longer bouts of involuntary unemployment.

“At midlife, the Boomers live with an even higher standard of living than their parents, but they also live with more inequality,” says the report, co-authored by Mary Elizabeth Hughes and Angela O’Rand, professor of Sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C, states. “The inequality is evident in their household incomes, home ownership patterns and net worth.”

Immigrants who entered the U.S. during the 20th century with varying levels of education only widened the divide between those with the education to maintain job stability and those without.

The report goes on to say that disadvantaged minorities and women in the Boomer generation remain at higher risk of non-coverage by pensions during their retirement years, which will likely boost demand exponentially for public assistance programs, including Medicaid and subsidized housing.

“Women live longer than men, have longer experiences with disability and greater requirements for long-term care,” the report notes. “Widows and divorced or never-married women who find themselves alone in old age with limited retirement incomes are permanent concerns of retirement policymakers.”

That concern is further compounded by the size of the Boomer population entering retirement and the fact that life expectancies continue to soar.

As Boomers enter their senior years, it remains unclear how they will impact state budgets, federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, or the social safety net for younger generations.

But one thing is certain: the generation that has shaped social and political change for the last 60 years isn’t done making history yet.

Watch "Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$!", Thursday, March 4 at 9pm ET on CNBC. The program will also air Saturday, March 6 at 7pm ET; Sunday, March 7th at 9pm ET; and Monday, March 8th at 8pm ET.