Growing America: Demographics and Destiny


Over the next four decades, American governments will oversee a much larger and far more diverse population. As we gain upward of 100 million people, America will inevitably become a more complex, crowded and competitive place, but it will continue to remain highly dependent on its people's innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

In 2050, the U.S. will look very different from the country in 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium. By mid-century, the U.S. will no longer be a "white country," but rather a staggering amalgam of racial, ethnic and religious groups, all participants in the construction of a new civilization whose roots lie not in any one country or continent, but across the entirety of human cultures and racial types. No other advanced, populous country will enjoy such ethnic diversity.

The implications of this change will be profound for governments-perhaps in ways not now commonly anticipated. Many "progressives" believe a more diverse, populous nation will need more guidance from Washington, D.C., but a more complex and varied country will increasingly not fit well into a one-size-fits-all approach.

Although the economic crisis of 2008 led to a rapid rise of federal power, there has been a stunning and largely unexpected push-back reflected, in part, by the tea party movement. Some states have passed laws that seek to restrict federal prerogatives on a host of issues. More importantly, public opinion, measured in numerous surveys, seems to be drifting away from major expansions of government power.

Of course, most Americans would accede to the federal government an important role in developing public works, national defense and regulations for health and safety. But generally speaking, they also tend to believe that local communities, neighborhoods and parents should possess the power to craft appropriate solutions on many other problems.

This also reflects our historical experience. From its origins, American democracy has been largely self-created and fostered a dispersion of power; in many European countries, and more recently in parts of Asia, democracy was forged by central authorities.

Other periods of massive government intervention, most notably after the New Deal and the Great Society, also elicited reactions against centralization. But the current push-back's speed and ferocity has been remarkable. Yet the often polarizing debate about the scope of federal power largely has ignored the longer-term trends that will promote the efficacy of an increasingly decentralized approach to governance.

Perhaps the most important factor here is the trajectory of greater growth and increasing diversity of who we are and how we live. Not only are Americans becoming more racially diverse, but they inhabit a host of different environments, ranging from dense cities to urbanized suburbs, to smaller cities and towns, that have different needs and aspirations.

Americans also are more settled than any time in our history-partially a function of an aging population-and thus more concerned with local developments. As recently as the 1970s, one in five Americans moved annually; in 2004 that number was 14 percent, the lowest rate since 1950. In 2008, barely one in 10 moved, a fraction of the rate in the 1960s. Workers are increasingly unwilling to move even for a promotion due to family and other concerns. The recession accelerated this process, but the pattern appears likely to persist even in good times.

Americans also prefer to live in decentralized environments. There are more than 65,000 general-purpose governments; the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200-small enough that nonprofessional politicians can have a serious impact on local issues. This contrasts with the vast preference among academic planners, policy gurus and the national media for larger government units as the best way to regulate and plan for the future.

Short of a draconian expansion of federal power, this dispersion is likely to continue. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of all metropolitan growth in the last decade took place on the periphery; at the same time, the patterns of domestic migration have seen a shift away from the biggest cities and toward smaller ones. As Joel Garreau noted in his classic Edge City, "planners drool" over high-density development, but most residents in suburbia "hate a lot of this stuff." They might enjoy a town center, a paseo or a walking district, but they usually resent the proliferation of high-rises or condo complexes. If they wanted to live in buildings like them, they would have stayed in the city.

Attempts to force major densification in these areas will be fiercely resisted, even in the most liberal communities. Some of the strongest anti-growth hotbeds in the nation are areas like Fairfax County, Va., with high concentrations of progressives-well educated people who might seem amenable to environmentally correct "smart growth"-advocating denser development along transit corridors. As one planning director in a well-to-do suburban Maryland county put it, "Smart growth is something people want. They just don't want it in their own neighborhood."

The great long-term spur to successful dispersion will come from technology, as James Martin first saw in his pioneering 1978 book, The Wired Society. A former software designer for IBM, Martin foresaw the emergence of mass telecommunications that would allow a massive reduction in commuting, greater deconcentration of workplaces and a "localization of physical activities … centered in local communities."

Technology would allow skilled people to congregate in communities of their choice or at home. Today not only knowledge workers but also those in construction trades, agriculture and other professions are home-based, conducting their operations out of trucks, vans or home offices.

Many leading-edge companies now recognize this trend. As much as 40 percent of IBM's work force operates full time at home or remotely at clients' businesses. Siemens, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Merrill Lynch and American Express have expanded their use of telecommuting, with noted increases in productivity.

At the same time, employment is shifting away from mega-corporations to smaller units and individuals; between 1980 and 2000, self-employed individuals expanded tenfold to include 16 percent of the work force. The smallest businesses, the microenterprises, have enjoyed the fastest rate of growth, far more than any other business category. By 2006 there were some 20 million such businesses, one for every six private-sector workers.

Hard economic times could slow this trend, but recessions have historically served as incubators of innovation and entrepreneurship. Many individuals starting new firms will have recently left or been laid off by bigger companies, particularly during a severe economic downturn. Whether they form a new bank, energy company or design firm, they will do it more efficiently-with less overhead, more efficient Internet use and less emphasis on pretentious office settings. In addition, they will do it primarily in places that can scale themselves to economic realities.

Simultaneously the Internet's rise allows every business-indeed every family-unprecedented access to information, something that militates against centralized power. Given Internet access, many lay people aren't easily intimidated into accepting the ability of "experts" to dictate solutions based on exclusive knowledge since the hoi polloi now possess the ability to gather and analyze information. Even the powerful media companies are rapidly losing their ability to define agendas; there are too many sources of information to mobilize mass opinion. The widespread breakdown of support for climate change is a recent example of this phenomenon.

Once the current drive for centralization falters, support for decentralization will grow, including progressive communities that now favor a heavy-handed expansion of federal power. Attempts to impose solutions from a central point will be increasingly regarded as obtrusive and oppressive to them, just as they would to many more conservative places like South Dakota. In the coming era, in many cases, only locally based solutions-agreed to at the community, municipal or state level-can possibly gather strong support.

This drive toward dispersing power will prove critical if we hope to meet the needs of an unprecedentedly diverse and complex nation of 400 million. New forms of association-from local electronic newsletters to a proliferation of local farmers markets, festivals and a host of ad hoc social service groups-are already growing. Indeed, after a generation-long decline, volunteerism has spiked among Millennials and seems likely to surge among downshifting baby boomers. In 2008, some 61 million Americans volunteered, representing more than one-quarter of the population older than 16.

It's these more intimate units-the family, the neighborhood association, the church or local farmers market-that constitute what Thomas Jefferson called our "little republics," which are most critical to helping mid-21st-century America. Here, our nation of 400 million souls will find its fundamental sustenance and its best hope for the brightest future.

This article originally appeared in GOVERNING Magazine.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo by slynkycat

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Author Joel Kotkin says "In 2008, barely one in 10 moved, a fraction of the rate in the 1960s." In the real estate boom, the rules were loosened to exempt capital gains on sale of a primary residence, no longer a once-in-a-lifetime exemption. No wonder people sold and moved and "upgraded." And now, we are all staying in place: well, yes, maybe because homeowners can't sell their homes into markets with 11 months inventory and declining prices, and are forced to stay put instead of flipping real estate.

"Many "progressives" believe a more diverse, populous nation will need more guidance from Washington, D.C."

That's quite a sweeping generalization, and perhaps a straw man. What is the basis for what "many progressives" think? Is there really a Progressive manifesto that you are quoting here? Or is it simply a reality that with the country, and perhaps the world, in financial crisis it's hard go it alone. My local banker and my state regulator can't do much to protect me from the Wall Street predators documented so ably here by Susanne Trimbath.

But back to urban planning... "Attempts to force major densification in these areas will be fiercely resisted, even in the most liberal communities." I can't tell what sort of straw-man you are setting up here either. Where do you refer to by "these areas;" if you refer to the 80% to 90% growth occurring at "the periphery" and in small cities, it's obvious: small towns don't grow in a dense manner when land is available and cheap; dense development (many units) in a small town takes time to occupy and is thus a disincentive to the developer. The logistics (and finance) of developing a few acres of open tract land into suburban homes is quite different from high-density or high-rise housing. Codes or restrictions "on the periphery" might be easier to meet that in dense urban areas. Absent constraints, developers choose where and what to build based on efficiency and profit; this isn't liberal doctrine, it's economics.

You will find density embraced in Portland Oregon's NW Pearl district, the South Waterfront district, the renovation of aging apartments into condos, small townhouse and condo conversions in non-urban southeast and northeast Portland neighborhoods. The only erosion in support seen in these projects is the fact that demand has weakened in the face of high prices and ample supply, plus a statewide 10% unemployment rate. In a better economy, they'd be building even more dense, quality housing. None of this has anything to do with liberal canon and even flies in the face of "the flight to the suburbs."

Now, what did all this have to do with racial diversity, anyways? (CF your second paragraph.) What are you alarmed about? Growth and development policy (at least in Oregon) is most influenced by state and county planning that was voted in by public initiative (CF "Urban Growth Boundary"), not by "Washington." If growth and quality of life in, say, Houston is peachy-keen (best job-growth city?), what part of that, now or ever, was dictated by Washington DC?

boborojo, I sort of have to

I sort of have to disagree with you that higher density housing is supported by more wealthy, typically more liberal metro areas. I see this kind of resistance frequently in the Bay Area, San Francisco. I've lived here for 10 years. I've lived in Berkeley and now another East Bay city and have worked in SF, Silicon Valley, Marin, and Berkeley.

In ALL of these cities and towns there is a fierce resistance not just to dense development, but frankly ANY development period. The town I live in now is comprised of a residential area and an abandoned naval base that takes up a good 30% of the island. For years there has been plan after plan after plan presented by the city, land and housing developers, and community leaders to build various forms of housing on the base. These have ranged from anything to condos, single family homes, or a mix of the two in order to appease the local populace. But this has been going on now for 13 years so far and each and every time a new plan is proposed, a new measure is put on the ballot only to be shot down by votes.

The argument is always that building new houses would "Ruin the quality of life" for those that live there. These same people pride themselves on being accepting, progressive, and open minded. Yet if it has to do with their back yard you can forget it because anything that threatens their precious property values is off the table.

The same is true in Marin- a very wealthy city outside of SF. The houses there cost an average of a million dollars each. Most look like a $150,000 anywhere else in the country. But the residents there have been very successful at making sure that no new housing developments are every built. I recall a recent plan to build section 8 housing in one area there. It never happened.

Berkeley is exactly the same way. So is much of Silicon Valley where again- a house that is seriously nothing more than a 50's Rancher house is over a million dollars.

In the end what's happened is the entire Bay Area is insanely overpriced because everyone in all these cities is so against allowing anything new or anyone new to move in... that is unless you're willing to join their club and shelling out some serious cash for a small house.

In the end this is going to backfire in a rather tragic way. All Bay Area cities have aging populations. Thanks to Prop 13 nobody ever moves out of their home. Thanks to the rampant anti-growth attitudes that exist in these towns nobody younger than 45-50 can afford to move in. Thus you have all these 60-70 year old people living in 2 and 3 million dollar homes they bought for $20,000 back in the 70's living in Marin, all assuming that there's miraculously going to somehow be a flood of younger people out there to buy their house. That would work except these people are all getting old and are all going to have to sell at the same time. Eventually this one-way system is going to stop working.

You mentioned the development of some of what I assume are the grittier parts of Portland as if that's proof of progress. Sure- we have that too. Just take a ride to West Oakland or even Richmond. Some of the worst, crime-ridden areas of the Bay Area and check out some of the random artsy warehouses that are being inhabited by artists and hipsters. They do so because that's about the only place they can afford. So if progress means that everywhere else is so expensive that your only options are crime-ridden ghettos or perhaps shoving the poor out of the way to force gentrification then I don't really see that as an improvement.

It doesn't matter to me personally. I'm moving out of the Bay Area in 7-8 months to Austin TX. Sure- the growth there is a little whacky. But you know what? I can actually afford to live a halfway decent life without spending a small fortune. I consider myself to be fairly liberal. But enough is enough.

Without going into details,

Without going into details, I'd say that what you're seeing with these recent backlashes is simply one previously dominant group losing power to another. Simple as that.