Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
Youth Population: Numbers and Shares
In 2009, 74.7 million children under age eighteen lived in the United States, representing just over 24 percent of the total population.8 The number of children is an all-time high for the United States, but their share of the population is an all-time low (figure 1). The changing age structure of the U.S. population over the past century reflects the joint influences of fertility trends and mass immigration at the beginning and end of the 1900s. Although fertility rates dropped steadily from the founding of the nation through the 1930s, the combination of relatively high fertility and mortality rates resulted in a young population with a high percentage of children (over 40 percent in 1900).9 Even with continuing declines in fertility rates, the relative youth of the population resulted in increasing numbers of children through 1929. The very low fertility rates during the Great Depression, combined with a virtual cessation of immigration, led to a shrinking child population through 1942. The share of children in the population dropped steadily to just under 30 percent in 1946.
The baby boom of 1946–64 reversed these trends sharply. Annual births exceeded 4 million every year from 1954 to 1964.10 The child population grew rapidly to just under 70 million children in 1964 and essentially remained at that level through 1972. With the advent of the baby bust of the 1970s, the child population began to shrink again. During the boom the child population increased faster than the overall population, so the share of children increased steadily from 1946 through 1964, when the proportion of the population under age eighteen reached 36.3 percent.
Fertility rates and number of births both dropped dramatically in the 1970s. Although fertility rates have risen only slightly since then, the number of births began to grow in the late 1970s as large numbers of baby boomers began to have children. Since the mid-1980s three trends have contributed to increases in the youth population: small increases in fertility rates from the very low levels of the 1970s; a baby boom echo, as the very large boomer cohorts moved into prime childbearing ages; and growing numbers of new immigrants, who tend to be concentrated in young adult ages and to have higher fertility rates than natives. By 1996 the number of children under eighteen passed 70 million for the first time in American history, exceeding the peak levels of the baby boom. Although the number of children is still rising, youth's share of the population has continued to drop, reaching a low of 24.2 percent in 2009. Population projections show that the number of children will continue to increase, reaching more than 100 million by 2050.11 Even with these growing absolute numbers, however, children will represent only about 23 percent of the population.
Because of its low fertility and mortality rates, the U.S. population has been aging and will continue to do so for another twenty or so years. The burgeoning elderly population may well compete with children for societal resources, especially at the federal level. In 1900 the population aged sixty-five and older represented about 4.1 percent of the population. By 2009 this share had more than tripled to 12.9 percent. Beginning in 2011, when the leading edge of the baby boom turns sixty-five, the elderly share of the population will increase rapidly through 2030, when it will exceed 18 percent, and will then level off for the next twenty years (see figure 1). In 1900 the ratio of children to elderly was almost 10 to 1; after 2030 the ratio is expected to be 1.25 to 1.