The U.S. in 2050: Bigger, younger, less white, less urban

A social demographer and urban historian explains in his new book how unprecedented growth will change our country in the next 40 years.

In Joel Kotkin’s new book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, he explores how the United States will evolve in the next four decades. Kotkin, a social demographer and urban historian, explains in the book how this unprecedented growth will allow America to emerge by mid-century as the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in history. I recently talked to Kotkin about the year 2050.

The “next 100 million.” How did you figure out this number?

That’s just Census projections. It’s really a conservative number. Could you get a much lower population projection? Yes, if you stopped immigration and if you had a 30-year recession. But I don’t think we'll have a 30-year recession, and I don’t think immigration will end.

How will this added population change the demographic make-up of our country?

We’ll be relatively younger, and we’ll have an expanding workforce. The country will probably be 40 to 50 percent nonwhite. That’s a huge change from 2000. Geographically, I think you’ll see a resurgence in some of the Great Plains states and some growth in more rural areas—like Des Moines, Fargo and Sioux Falls.

You say a large percentage of this new population will live in greenurbia. Explain that.

Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense.

What will happen to our cities?

The central cities will be one of the many poles of a region--perhaps the most important one but not the only one. When I went to U.C. Berkley, San Francisco was the center of the Bay Area, without question. Whereas today it’s still a center, but Silicon Valley is the economic center. You’re seeing that transition in most American metropolitan areas. These business centers are also starting to develop their own downtowns. For instance, 30 or 40 years ago, Orange County was a suburb of L.A., and you drove to L.A. to see a play or go shopping. Now, Orange County has its own restaurants, shopping, its own ball team. So the central cities will emerge as a niche. Ten to 20 percent of the population will live there--it’ll be recent immigrants, young people, the very wealthy and those who serve the very wealthy.

What businesses will grow?

Telecommunications, marketing, online companies, and businesses that serve local areas. Since more people will be working at home or close to home, they’ll be doing more in their local areas--whether it’s a restaurant, dance studio or local construction company. You’ll also see growth in the medical field and in international business.

So are we moving back to mom and pop stores?

Yes, but not to the early 20th century mom and pop. It’ll go back to 18th or 17th century where many businesses were run out of people’s homes. If you look back at old paintings, you see businesses downstairs and people living upstairs.

What inspired this book?

When we hit the 300 million mark, I was interested in where we’re going from here. The trends had become more pronounced. I was looking into the history of cultures that are losing population and aging rapidly. I didn’t sit in an office in Washington and read policy briefings. When I’m in Washington, I’m depressed. It’s divorced from reality. Inspiration for optimism and adaptability come from being out in the country. I spent time in the Southeast, the Rocky Mountains, the West Coast, the Midwest, just talking to people. I got the sense that what people want is not as much of a chasm as what is often associated with the country. The polarization of politics is much greater among the chattering classes than among the people in general. What people want is pretty simple--a better life for themselves and their kids.

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