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An Unusual Chance for Racial Justice

December 14, 2007

The next quarter century will offer an extraordinary, but so far unheralded, opportunity for racial change in the United States. Demography is the key reason. With the retirement of the massive baby-boom cohorts—individuals born between 1946 and 1964—the labor market will open up in a way unseen since the middle of the twentieth century. For white males, present-day birth rates mean that not enough white men will mature in the next 25 years to replace retirees. This phenomenon will bring unusual opportunities for socioeconomic and social ascent by minorities (and women).

Baby boomers account for a disproportionate share of American workers, especially at the top rungs of the labor market—that is, in the best-paying occupations. For instance, in 2000, they accounted for 70 percent or more of the chief executives, dentists, engineering managers, and supervisors of police. On top of that, baby boomers comprised 60 percent or more of many occupations that fall into the top half of the labor force based on average pay, including physicians and surgeons, information systems managers, judges, electrical and electronics engineers, and veterinarians. These high-paid professionals are largely non-Hispanic whites.  

However, since post-baby-boom whites are less numerous, it is unlikely that enough such professionals will be available to fill the positions left vacant by well-paid retirees. For instance, a big fall-off will occur in terms of the number of middle-aged (36 to 45 years old) whites—those in some of their most productive professional years. By 2010, a 20 percent decline is expected among whites in that age range. This reduced size will likely continue for the following two decades. Immigration can do little to change this trend. Whites are not available elsewhere to immigrate in large numbers; Europe, for example, will be experiencing its own decline of native-born workers.

As workers retire, non-whites may be able to rise to these positions, as well as fill new jobs created by population growth. This could generate large-scale upward mobility as non-whites ascend to tiers of the labor market historically monopolized by whites. The labor market shift created by demographic change can be characterized as non-zero sum. That is, it can occur without infringing on the socio-economic status of privileged whites. Middle-class and upper-middle-class whites can continue to experience opportunities for themselves and their children that are no different than today. But, at the same time, the more desirable occupations would see unprecedented diversification.

Non-zero-sum mobility holds a special significance for racial and ethnic change. It is relatively unlikely to threaten the privileged or to spur an intensification of racial or ethnic competition. The last time such massive mobility occurred was during the two decades following World War II. Back then, the education system and labor market were transformed due to the country’s dominant economic position in the world. At the same time, previously marginalized white ethnic groups (Irish Catholics and southern and eastern Europeans, predominantly Catholic and Jewish) were integrated into the mainstream. This integration was not just a matter of upward socioeconomic mobility, though it certainly involved that. Instead, it also represented a thoroughgoing social amalgamation. Whites of various ethnic origins mixed in the residential areas of emerging suburbs and intermarriage increased across ethnic and religious lines. Ethnic divisions among whites that had seemed salient prior to the war faded fairly quickly into the background.

The top tiers of the labor force are already becoming more diverse due to the shifting racial and ethnic composition of cohorts now entering the labor market. For example, as of 2000, the older incumbents of well-paying occupations—those that account for the top quarter of full-time positions, let us say—were largely non-Hispanic whites. This was true for almost 90 percent of workers aged 55 to 64 years. However, it was less true for younger workers. Among 25 to 34 year olds, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in higher-paying positions had declined to 78 percent. While immigrants, especially those from Asian countries, account for part of the change, so do disadvantaged native minorities. African Americans and U.S.-born Hispanics—many of whom are the children of immigrants—represent 11 percent of the top job holders in the younger age group, double their representation in the older group.

The retirement of baby boomers could accelerate this diversification, but admittedly, this is just one scenario. Other options are possible, and the future reality is likely to prove a mix of possibilities. Women, especially white women, are poised to take advantage of openings in well-paying occupations. This can be attributed to their superior performance in post-secondary education over the past couple of decades. Immigrants, too, could take many of these openings. The U.S. already recruits many highly trained immigrants, both through regular immigration channels and through the H1-B visa program. It is possible, as the proposed point system in this year’s failed immigration bill indicates, that immigration policy will shift in the direction of expanded recruitment for such immigrants.

Education is the biggest threat to this scenario. The most disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.—blacks and Hispanics—have more limited levels of educational attainment. Their rates of college graduation, for example, are only about half as high as their white peers. Education is hampered by the growing segregation of minority children in poorly funded and equipped schools. These public schools are frequently in disarray and even unsafe for students.

Substantial investment in schools will be required to help U.S.-born minorities take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead in the next 25 years. Because of this it will be tempting for policymakers and tax payers to look for others sources of highly trained workers, especially among immigrants. However, the chance to make major repairs to racial and ethnic inequalities does not come around very often. A wise society will recognize that now is the time to ameliorate deeply engrained racial injustices.

Richard Alba is a Distinguished Professor of Race and Ethnicity at the University at Albany, SUNY.