The United States is changing rapidly. The oldest baby boomers are into their retirement years, and the median age of the U.S. population is climbing. At the same time, each generation is more racially and ethnically diverse than the previous one. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will grow older, more Hispanic and more Asian. But why wait — where can we go now to see what the U.S. will look like in future decades?
The place to see the future is Las Vegas, whose demographics today look most like what the U.S. overall will look like in 2060.
The latest population estimates for every county in the U.S., released Thursday by the Census Bureau, confirm this. The figures — which include breakdowns by age, race and ethnicity — provide a snapshot of what the U.S. looked like in 2016. But they also provide a glimpse of the future: By combining this new data with previously released population projections, also from the Census Bureau, we can identify the places in 2016 that looked the most like the America of the future.
Start with the snapshot: In 2016, America grew yet more diverse. Just 61 percent of U.S. residents were non-Hispanic white, down from 64 percent in 2010 and 76 percent in 1990. Two forces boost racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. First, immigration adds to diversity because most immigrants are Hispanic or Asian. But second, even if immigration stopped, diversity would still increase as more diverse younger generations replace older, whiter generations. As of June 2017, the median age for whites in the U.S. was 43, compared with 36 for Asians, 34 for blacks and 29 for Hispanics.
Some parts of the country, of course, are more racially and ethnically diverse than others. (Localities also differ in other demographic factors, such as age, but the racial and ethnic differences are especially stark.) The whitest of the country’s large metropolitan areas, for example, is Portland, Maine, where 92.5 percent of residents are white. The most Hispanic large metro area, McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border, is 91.8 percent Hispanic. Jackson, Mississippi, is 49.0 percent black, and Honolulu is 41.7 percent Asian. Among the 104 largest metro areas, whites are the largest group in 89, Hispanics in 11, blacks in two (Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson), and Asians in two (San Jose, California, and Honolulu).
One simple and flexible measure of diversity is the share of an area’s population that belongs to that area’s largest group. By this measure, the most diverse of the large metro areas is San Jose, California, which is 35 percent Asian, 32 percent white and 27 percent Hispanic. Houston and the San Francisco area (which includes Oakland and other parts of the East Bay) are the next most diverse. Six of the 10 most diverse metro areas are in California; all are in the South or West. (Three smaller metros in Hawaii are even more diverse than San Jose.)
Large metro areas themselves are more diverse than the rest of America, and the urban counties of large metros are the most diverse. However, the most racially and ethnically mixed counties in America are urban counties outside a metro area’s central core. New York City’s most diverse borough, for example, isn’t Manhattan — it’s Queens, which is also the most diverse county in America: 28 percent Hispanic, 26 percent Asian, 25 percent white and 18 percent black. And suburbs, especially lower-density suburbs, of large metro areas, are changing most rapidly: They became more diverse (by this simple measure) at a faster rate between 2010 and 2016 than urban counties, small or midsize metros, or rural areas.
||AVG. POP. SHARE OF LARGEST ETHNIC OR RACIAL GROUP
|Large metros: urban counties
|Large metros: higher-density suburbs
|Large metros: lower-density suburbs
The U.S. is getting more diverse — especially in the suburbs
Although, as a snapshot, the demographics of metro areas look very different from one another, most are moving in the same direction. The vast majority are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Ninety-two of the 104 largest metro areas were more diverse in 2016 than in 2010. Of the 12 metro areas that became less diverse, only Charleston, South Carolina, saw the non-Hispanic white share of the population increase between 2010 and 2016. Also, in every one of the 104 largest metro areas, the share of residents 55 or older increased between 2010 and 2016 — even in relatively young places like Salt Lake City; Bakersfield, California; and Austin, Texas.
Last year, I looked at a similar set of data from the Census Bureau to identify the most “normal” place (demographically speaking) in the United States. Even though politicians often describe “real America” as a small town in the Midwest, statistically the most typical metro area is New Haven, Connecticut. Small towns in Ohio today look demographically more like 1950s America than any place else does, but metro New Haven and Tampa, Florida, look most like America today.
America tomorrow, however, won’t look like America today: The Census Bureau has projected the age distribution and the racial and ethnic mix of the population out to 2060. The white share of the population is expected to fall from 61.3 percent in 2016 to 43.6 percent in 2060, while the shares of Hispanics and Asians increase significantly. The U.S. is projected to cease being majority non-Hispanic white in 2044. And the U.S. will continue to age, with the 55-plus share of the population rising from 28 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2060.
Even with these shifts, America won’t be as diverse as San Jose, Honolulu or several other large metros are today. And America in 2060 won’t be as gray — as measured by the share of the population 55 and older — as many Florida metro areas are today.
Therefore, the U.S. of 2060 will lie between today’s most demographically “normal” metro area, New Haven, and today’s most diverse and oldest metro areas. So what place today does look like the America of the future? Las Vegas comes closest, with a racial and ethnic mix today that is very close to the projected national mix for 2060 and an age distribution today that’s not too far off from the national 2060 projection. On a scale of 0 to 100, where 100 means that two places have the same demographic mix and 0 means that the two places have entirely non-overlapping demographic groups (e.g., one is 100 percent young black people, the other 100 percent older Asian people), the similarity between Las Vegas today and the U.S. in 2060 is 86.5. The other four large metros that look today most like the U.S. in 2060 are New York; Orlando, Florida; Sacramento, California; and San Diego. Among smaller metro areas, the Vallejo-Fairfield, California, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, of today look most like future America, with similarity scores in the mid-80s, but, on average, the largest metro areas look more like the future than smaller metro areas do.
||SIMILARITY TO U.S. OVERALL IN 2060
|New York-Newark-Jersey City
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land
Metro areas of today that look like the U.S. of tomorrow
These “future U.S.” metros aren’t necessarily representative in other ways, of course. Las Vegas and Orlando have atypical local economies driven by tourism, for example, and New York is extreme in many ways. Plus, all those tourists skew the mix of people on the street in those places, so you’d have to get away from Times Square, the Strip or Epcot to see the demographics of the future more clearly.
As the U.S. gradually begins to look more like Las Vegas and New York, it will look less like Midwestern metro areas such as Kansas City, Cincinnati and Detroit. Of the 104 largest U.S. metro areas, 84 look less like the future than the present: that is, their similarity score with 2016 America is higher than their similarity score with 2060 America. Still, most will likely see their demographics shift along with the country’s. Shifts in immigration patterns, housing costs and even climate change could alter where different demographic groups live in the U.S. The Las Vegas of 2060 probably won’t be as close a demographic match to 2060 America as the Las Vegas of today is. But, in the absence of time travel, it’s the place to go now if you want to see America’s demographic future.