Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
The youth population of the United States currently has several extreme demographic features. Youth are more numerous than ever before in the nation's history—almost 75 million U.S. residents were under age eighteen in 2009. Yet, because of overall population growth, youth represent just 24 percent of the total population, a smaller share than ever before. Immigrant youth are a significant factor in the growing numbers because they constitute nearly a quarter of the child population, the highest proportion in the last ninety years.
Changes in the number, proportion, and composition of the youth population over the past century largely reflect three key demographic events. Major waves of immigration bookend the twentieth century. Large-scale migration, mainly from southern and eastern Europe, changed the face of the United States at the beginning of the 1900s before being brought to an end by World War I and the restrictive legislation enacted shortly thereafter. Passage of landmark immigration legislation in 1965 spurred new immigration flows, mainly from Latin America and Asia, which increased through the end of the century. Fueled by both legal and unauthorized immigration, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population increased to levels last seen in the 1920s, and the racial and ethnic mix of the population, particularly the youth, changed dramatically.
Between these two immigration waves was the baby boom of 1946–64, a period of increased fertility rates and much higher numbers of annual births than had occurred in the nation's history or would occur for the rest of the century. This signature demographic period will continue to influence many aspects of American society well into the twenty-first century. As a result of the baby boom, the youth population reached a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s; as the boomers moved into the labor force, the working-age population grew dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s. An "echo" of the baby boom in the 1980s, when boomers reached childbearing ages, combined with the children of the new immigrants, led to a rebound in the numbers of births and children in the population. The final impact of the baby boom will reach well into the twenty-first century as the boomers age. The first will reach age sixty-five in 2011, leading to significant growth in both the number and share of elderly into the 2030s.
In addition to contributing to population growth after the baby boom ended, post-1965 immigrants almost immediately increased racial and ethnic diversity among adults—more than three-quarters of the new immigrants were Latino or Asian. Their children, most of whom were born in the United States and are thus U.S. citizens, have led to an increasingly diverse youth population. Projections that account for generational structure and dynamics show that the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation's children will continue to increase (whether future immigration increases, holds steady, or even decreases somewhat). Moreover, because of the accumulation of a significant foreign-born population over the past three decades—now amounting to about one-sixth of the adult population—the share of immigrant youth will continue to grow in the future—from 23 percent of all children today to about one-third of an even larger number of children in twenty-five years. As these youth move into adulthood, they will shape many aspects of U.S. society, especially given the relatively low fertility of the native-born white and black populations. Almost all growth in the young adult population (ages eighteen to forty-four years) will come from immigrants and their U.S.-born children. Thus, immigrants and their children will provide virtually all of the growth in the U.S. labor force over the next forty years.1 Immigration-driven growth in the child population will be occurring at the same time as the aging baby boomers will increase the elderly population. The accompanying pressure on retirement and health care systems may lead to generational competition for societal resources.
This article provides a broad overview of immigrant youth in the United States, defined to include children who are themselves immigrants (the first generation) and the U.S.-born children of immigrants (the second generation). It assesses the size and growth of the current youth population in comparison with other key age groups and examines youth's generational composition, the legal status of immigrant parents and their children, the distribution of youth across the country, their racial and ethnic make-up, and their geographic origins. The article places today's youth population in the broad sweep of U.S. demographic history from 1900 to the present and maps a likely future through 2050. It concludes with some observations about the immigrant youth population's impact on society past, present, and future.