Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Second-generation nation: A look ahead as minority babies become a majority

Babies nap in a hospital nursery, February 2010
Babies nap in a hospital nursery, February 2010
Photo by David Herholz/Flickr (Creative Commons)

It doesn't come as shocking news that for the first time in U.S. history, the majority of the babies being born in the United States are members of Latino, black, Asian and other minority groups. When the 2010 census was taken in April of that year, this number was nearing 50 percent; according to new reports, the tipping point came three months later, in July 2010. By last year, 50.4 percent of children under the age of one belonged to groups considered minorities.

The news falls within a bigger picture: Many of these babies are second-generation Americans born to immigrants. And as the 2010 census showed us, it is the children of immigrants who are boosting the growth of the dominant-minority Latino population, which is no longer fueled so much by immigration. The historic immigration boom from Mexico of the late 20th century has died down, immigrants from there and elsewhere who have chosen to stay in the U.S. are staying long-term, and their children are becoming the new face of the U.S.

In a way, it's only history repeating itself in a nation made up of generations of immigrants. The perception of what constitutes "American" has slowly evolved over the years, sometimes not easily. But now it's these kids' turn. What can we expect from this emerging second-generation nation as our minority-majority babies grow up? A few highlights from the future:

1) The overall picture: As California goes, so goes the country

A recent state population projection from the University of Southern California predicted a state which, as the immigration that fueled its growth in recent decades has slowed, will be older and less crowded than once expected. It will also be increasingly second-generation. According to the report, the share of second-generation Californians with at least one foreign-born parent is expected to go from the 16.9 percent it was in 1990 to 27.1 percent in 2030.

As both foreign- and native-born Californians age, what growth there is in the future working-age population will be dominated by children of immigrants. From the report:

Whereas the main working age population (ages 25 to 64) increased 4.2 million from 1990 to 2010, it is expected to grow moderately less (3.3 million) from 2010 to 2030. Virtually all the projected growth is comprised of native-born who are the children of immigrants (98%).

This contrasts to the earlier growth period, when immigrants themselves accounted for 80% of the growth. In fact, in the coming period, 112% of the 3.3 million working age increase is projected to be from California-born residents (a 3.7 million increase that exceeds losses in other groups).

This sets up a host of challenges, from who will provide lower-wage labor to how to properly educate and train younger second-generation Californians for success. So moving on...

2) There will be educational challenges

Educational attainment varies widely among different ethnic groups, but in general, the picture isn't ideal for some groups across immigrant generations. From an Urban Institute research brief:

Looking at the dropout rates of immigrant youth in each generation relative to their parents, first-generation Hispanic and Asian immigrant youth make tremendous strides in educational attainment relative to their parents.

But this trend in upward mobility reverses by the third generation (Perreira, Harris, et al. 2007). Furthermore, the second generation is not graduating from college at the same rate as their native non-Hispanic White peers (Fry, 2007).

Increasingly punitive "zero tolerance" policies in public schools have been blamed by critics as contributing to an especially high dropout rate among black and Latino youths. And while some groups of Asian Americans achieve high educational attainment, it's not universal: There are wide disparities, for example, between Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans and other Southeast Asians. The gaps between different groups, blacks and Latinos included, trace back to factors that range from immigration status to access to early childhood education.

But even among some of the groups with lower educational attainment, there have been gains: For example, a recent Migration Policy Institute report found that second-generation Latinas are enrolling in college at a rate of 46 percent, not far behind non-Latina white peers. Similarly, male Latinos are enrolled at a rate of 37 percent, not far behind white men. Overall, though, second-generation Latinos' degree completion rate still falls behind that of white peers, with family finances, the need to work, and in some cases immigration status playing a role.

3) There will be more native-born U.S. citizen minorities eligible to vote

And they will continue to be up for grabs, to a point. Where second- and third-generation votes fall depends on which group we're talking about, as does how many of these potential voters show up at the polls. So far, as minorities in California go, black voters are more likely to turn out in proportion to their share of the population, but Latinos and Asians are still underrepresented in voter turnout, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

But there have been slight gains, and more can be expected as native-born children of immigrants come of age. How might they vote? Let's take a look at what the Pew Hispanic Center reported on Latino voters by generation earlier this year. In a nutshell, the native-born are more likely to consider themselves liberal, although there are shades of gray going into the third. From the report:

Foreign-born Hispanics are more likely than native-born Hispanics to describe their political views as conservative—35% versus 28%. Meanwhile, native-born Hispanics are more likely than immigrant Hispanics to describe their political views as “very liberal” or “liberal”—34% versus 27%.

Second- and third-generation Latino voters lean farther to the left than the first generation does on issues like abortion and gay rights, according to the Pew report. But while first-generation Latinos favor bigger government, the second and third generations lean successively to the right on this one, with a bigger share of each generation preferring smaller government.

4) There will be more interracial/interethnic families

As the European immigrants of a hundred years ago assimilated during the 20th century, rates of interethnic marriage among these different ethnic groups climbed toward mid-century, as the children of European immigrants "married out" into other groups.

The same has held true with today's second-generation adult children of immigrants, a more racially diverse bunch than their mid-20th century predecessors. In 2006, a Migration Policy Institute analysis reported on how different generations of women in minority groups chose partners:

The low levels of intermarriage in the first generation are followed by higher levels of intermarriage in the second generation for all nonwhite women. Among Asians and Hispanics, the increase in levels of intermarriage continues into the third generation. For Asian and Hispanic women, then, the pattern fits the expectations generated by the "straight-line" assimilation theory, with steady increases in intermarriage across generations.

The picture differs for white women and black women. Levels of intermarriage among white women are relatively steady across generations, hovering around five percent. The steadiness can be attributed to the large numbers of whites in the American population — all else being equal, levels of intermarriage are always lowest among members of larger groups.

No surprise, then, that recent decades have brought a growing number of  interracial marriages, as reported by the Pew Hispanic Center this year. In 2010, the share of new marriages between spouses of different races or ethnicities stood at 15.1 percent; the overall share as far as existing marriages stood at 8.4 percent, an all-time high. In 1980, only three percent of all marriages and less than seven percent of new ones involved partners of different racial or ethnic groups.

Chances are that today's majority-minority babies will continue the trend. What will their second-generation nation look like? Los Angeles Magazine's April cover on race and the new face of L.A. may have been a few years overdue in a polyglot town like this one, but the cover models are a pretty good indication.