For a brief moment last month—roughly a 72-hour span beginning at 11:00 p.m. on November 6 and concluding late in the evening of November 9—everyone in America was interested in demographics. That’s because, in addition to rewarding the just, punishing the wicked, and certifying that America was (for the moment) not racist, President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney pointed to two ineluctable demographic truths. The first was expected: that the growth of the Hispanic-American cohort is irresistible and will radically transform our country’s ethnic future. The second caught people by surprise: that the proportion of unmarried Americans was suddenly at an all-time high.
Unfortunately, by the time the window closed on the public’s
demographic curiosity no one really understood either of these shifts.
Or where they came from. Or whether they were even particularly true. As
is often the case, people tended to fixate on a relatively small,
contingent part of America’s changing demographic makeup and look past
the bigger, more consequential part of the story.
So let’s begin by asking the obvious question: Hispanics are
America’s demographic future—true or false? The answer is, both. Sort
Start with what we know. As of the 2010 census, there were 308.7
million people in America, 50.5 million of whom (16 percent) were
classified as being of -“Hispanic origin.” Of that 50 million, about
half are foreign-born legal immigrants. Another 11 million or so are
illegal immigrants. A few other facts, just to give you some texture: 63
percent of American Hispanics trace their -origins to Mexico, 9.2
percent to Puerto Rico, and 3.5 percent to Cuba. And more than half of
the 50 million live in just three states, California, Texas, and
But what makes people’s heads snap to attention when they talk about
Hispanic demographics isn’t any of that stuff. It’s the rate of
increase. From 2000 to 2010, America’s Hispanic population jumped by 43
percent, while our total population increased by just 9.7 percent. Or,
to put it another way, from 2000 to 2010, America grew by 27.3 million
people. Fifteen million of those faces—more than half of those new
If you extrapolate those trends the numbers get even more
eye-popping. In 2008, the Pew Research Center projected that, at current
rates, by 2050 there would be 128 million Hispanic Americans, making
the group 29 percent of the American population. The census projection
is a little higher; they guess the total will be 132.8 million, 30
percent of a projected total population of 439 million.
Where do these numbers come from? It’s not rocket science.
Demographers depend mainly on two variables: net migration to the United
States by people from Spanish-speaking countries and the fertility rate
of Hispanic Americans.
The big 130-million projections come from assumptions based on the
2000 census. Back then, immigration from south of the border was
booming, with a net of about 900,000 new people—both legal and
illegal—showing up every year in America. (In 2000 alone, 770,000
people came from Mexico.) Because of that trend line, demographers
assumed that we’d be netting roughly 1 million new immigrants every year
between now and 2050.
But trends don’t always continue to the horizon, and we’re already
going in a different direction on immigration. America’s net annual
immigration numbers started declining in 2006, sliding from just over 1
million in 2005 to 855,000 in 2009. We don’t have good totals for 2010
or 2011 (because the Census Bureau rejiggered its formula in 2010,
making it hard to compare to previous years), but we do have numbers for
Mexican immigration alone, which show—amazingly—that in the most
recent years there’s been a net flow of zero immigrants from
Mexico. Since Mexico has historically made up nearly two-thirds of our
Hispanic immigrant pool all by itself, this would suggest that when we
do get comparable data we will see that there has been a significant drop in immigration already.
Economists who have noted this sudden shift are quick to explain it
as a byproduct of the recession and the bursting housing bubble, which
dried up jobs—particularly in the construction industry—causing
prospective immigrants to stay put and pushing many illegal immigrants
already in the country to head home. The implication of this argument is
that as soon as our economy goes back to “normal,” the patterns of
migration will, too.
Demographers aren’t so sure. Speaking broadly, when it comes to
immigration there are two kinds of countries—sending and receiving.
The economic factors distinguishing the two are what you’d expect—rich
vs. poor; dynamic vs. lethargic. But there are demographic markers,
too. Receiving countries tend to have very low fertility
rates—generally below the replacement rate of 2.1. (That is, if the
average woman has 2.1 children in her lifetime then a country’s
population will maintain a steady state.) In the short run, fertility
rates below replacement cause labor shortages. Sending countries, on the
other hand, have fertility rates well above the replacement rate, and
resultant labor surpluses.
When you look at immigration rates from Central and South America to
the United States, you find that these demographic markers are fairly
reliable. Over the last decade or so the high-fertility countries
(Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia) have sent larger numbers of
immigrants to America while below-replacement countries (Uruguay, Chile,
Brazil) have sent relatively few. Consider, for the sake of
illustration, the cases of Guatemala and Costa Rica, two tiny Central
American countries. With a population of 14 million, Guatemala still has
a relatively robust fertility rate of 3.18. And as of 2010, there were a
million people of Guatemalan descent living in the United States. Costa
Rica has a population of 4.6 million and a fertility rate of 1.92.
There are only 126,000 Costa Ricans in America—about 66 percent fewer
than you would expect if the Guatemalan rates prevailed.
What else happened between 2006 and today, aside from the housing
bubble and the Great Recession? Mexico’s fertility rate—which has been
heading downward on an express elevator since the 1970s—started
nearing the replacement rate. The data are slightly conflicting on how
low it is—some people believe it has already dipped below 2.1, others
put the number just over 2.2. But everyone agrees that the trajectory is
downward still. And that the same is true of nearly every other country
south of the American border.
So will America add another 38 million Hispanics by 2050 just through
immigration alone, as the projections suggest? No one knows, of course.
But it seems an uncertain proposition. The boom days of Hispanic
immigration may already be a thing of the past.
Which leads us to the fertility rate of Hispanic Americans. As a
cohort, Hispanics have the highest fertility rate of America’s racial
groups, around 2.7. Much research has been done trying to figure out if,
and when, the Hispanic-American fertility rate will fall toward the
national average (which is closer to 2.0). Some researchers believe that
by 2050, our Hispanic fertility rate will be at replacement. Others
suggest sooner. Some scholars, looking at the data by cohort, suggest
that Hispanic-American women currently in their childbearing years will
finish them close to the replacement level. All of the research,
however, indicates that in recent years the fertility rate of Hispanic
Americans has been moving downward faster than it has for any other
Last week the Pew Center reported that from 2007 to 2010 America’s
birth rate dropped by 8 percent. The decline was relatively modest for
native-born Americans—only a 6 percent drop. But the immigrant birth
rate dropped by 14 percent. And the birth rate for Mexican-born
immigrants dropped by 23 percent. These declines were outsized, but they
fit the larger trend. From 1990 to 2007, the Mexican-born birth rate
had already dropped by 26 percent.
None of this is meant to predict that by such and such year there
will be exactly so many Hispanic Americans. Social science has limits,
and they are even nearer than you think. But when you look at the
assumptions underlying the predictions for America’s Hispanic future,
they’re even more uncertain than usual—and in fact are already a
decade or so out of step with reality. America’s Great Hispanic Future
is probably being oversold. And possibly by quite a bit.
You don’t hear nearly as much about the rise of single voters,
despite the fact that they represent a much more significant trend. Only
a few analysts, such as Ruy Teixera, James Carville, and Stanley
Greenberg, have emphasized how important singletons were to President
Obama’s reelection. Properly understood, there is far less of a “gender”
gap in American politics than people think. Yes, President Obama won
“women” by 11 points (55 percent to 44 percent). But Mitt Romney won
married women by the exact same margin. To get a sense of how powerful
the marriage effect is, not just for women but for men, too, look at the
exit polls by marital status. Among nonmarried voters—people who are
single and have never married, are living with a partner, or are
divorced—Obama beat Romney 62-35. Among married voters Romney won the
vote handily, 56-42.
Far more significant than the gender gap is the marriage gap. And
what was made clear in the 2012 election was that the cohorts of
unmarried women and men are now at historic highs—and are still
increasing. This marriage gap—and its implications for our political,
economic, and cultural future—is only dimly understood.
Americans have been wedded to marriage for a very long time. Between
1910 and 1970, the “ever-married rate”—that is, the percentage of
people who marry at some point in their lives—went as high as 98.3
percent and never dipped below 92.8 percent. Beginning in 1970, the
ever-married number began a gradual decline so that by 2000 it stood at
Today, the numbers are more striking: 23.8 percent of men, and 19
percent of women, between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married.
Tick back a cohort to the people between 20 and 34—the
prime-childbearing years—and the numbers are even more startling: 67
percent of men and 57 percent of women in that group have never been
married. When you total it all up, over half of the voting-age
population in America—and 40 percent of the people who actually showed
up to vote this time around—are single.
What does this group look like? Geographically, they tend to live in
cities. As urban density increases, marriage rates (and childbearing
rates) fall in nearly a straight line. Carville and Greenberg put
together a Venn diagram which is highly instructive. Of the 111 million
single eligible voters, 53 million are women and 58 million are men.
Only 5.7 million of these women are Hispanic and 9.7 million are African
American. Nearly three-quarters of all single women are white. In other
words, the cohort looks a lot like the Julia character the Obama
campaign rolled out to show how the president’s policies care for that
plucky gal from the moment she enrolls in Head Start right through her
retirement. You may recall that because of President Obama, Julia goes
to college, gets free birth control, has a baby anyway, sends her lone
kid to public school, and then—at age 42—starts her own business (as
a web designer!). What she does not do is get married.
Singles broke decisively for Obama. Though his margins with them were
lower than they were in 2008, he still won them handily: Obama was +16
among single men and +36 with single women. But the real news wasn’t how
singles broke—it was that their share of the total vote increased by a
whopping 6 percentage points. To put this in some perspective,
the wave of Hispanic voters we’ve heard so much about increased its
share of the total vote from 2008 to 2012 by a single point, roughly
1.27 million voters. Meanwhile, that 6 percentage point increase meant
7.6 million more single voters than in 2008. They provided Obama with a
margin of 2.9 million votes, about two-thirds of his margin of victory.
Back in 2010, Teixera noted that 47 percent of all women are now
unmarried, up from 38 percent in 1970. “Their current size in the voter
pool—more than a quarter of eligible voters—is nearly the size of
white evangelical Protestants, who are perhaps the GOP’s largest base
group,” he writes. “And since the current growth rate of the population
of unmarried women is relatively high (double that of married women),
the proportion of unmarried women in the voting pool should continue to
increase.” In the medium run, he’s almost certainly correct.
How did we get to an America where half of the adult population isn’t
married and somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of the
population don’t get married for the first time until they’re
approaching retirement? It’s a complicated story involving, among other
factors, the rise of almost-universal higher education, the delay of
marriage, urbanization, the invention of no-fault divorce, the
legitimization of cohabitation, the increasing cost of raising children,
and the creation of a government entitlement system to do for the
elderly childless what grown children did for their parents through the
But all of these causes are particular. Looming beneath them are two
deep shifts. The first is the waning of religion in American life. As
Joel Kotkin notes in a recent report titled “The Rise of
Post-Familialism,” one of the commonalities between all of the major
world religions is that they elevate family and kinship to a central
place in human existence. Secularism tends toward agnosticism about the
family. This distinction has real-world consequences. Take any cohort of
Americans—by race, income, education—and then sort them by
religious belief. The more devout they are, the higher their rates of
marriage and the more children they have.
The second shift is the dismantling of the iron triangle of sex,
marriage, and childbearing. Beginning in roughly 1970, the mastery of
contraception decoupled sex from babymaking. And with that link broken,
the connections between sex and marriage—and finally between marriage
and childrearing—were severed, too.
Where is this trend line headed? In a word, higher. There are no
indicators to suggest when and where it will level off. Divorce rates
have stabilized, but rates of cohabitation have continued to rise,
leading many demographers to suspect that living together may be
crowding out matrimony as a mode of family formation. And increasing
levels of education continue to push the average age at first marriage
Fertility rates play a role, too. Nearly one in five American women
now forgo having children altogether, and without babies, marriage is
less of a necessity. People’s attitudes have followed the fertility
rate. The Pew Research Center frequently surveys Americans about their
thoughts on what makes a successful marriage. Between the 1990 survey
and the 2007 survey, there were big increases in the percentages of
people who said that sharing political or religious beliefs was
“important to a good marriage.” In 2007, there was a 21 percent increase
in people who said it was important for a marriage that the couple have
“good housing.” Thirty-seven percent fewer people said that having children was important. The other indicator to decline in importance from 1990 to 2007? “Faithfulness.”
As Kotkin explains, comparatively speaking, America is still doing
pretty well when it comes to singletons. In Europe, Asia, and most
advanced countries, people are running away from marriage, children, and
family life at an amazing rate. To pick just a smattering of data
points from the highlight reel: Thirty percent of German women today say
that they do not intend to have children. In Japan in 1960, 20 percent
of women between 25 and 29 had never married. Today the number is more
than 60 percent. Gavin Jones of the National University of Singapore
estimates that “up to a quarter of all East Asian women will remain
single by age 50, and up to a third will remain childless.”
The question, then, is whether America will continue following its
glidepath to the destination the rest of the First World is already
nearing. Most experts believe that it will. As the Austrian demographer
Wolfgang Lutz puts it, once a society begins veering away from marriage
and childbearing, it becomes a “self-reinforcing mechanism” in which the
cult of the individual holds greater and greater allure.
What then? Culturally speaking, it’s anybody’s guess. The more
singletons we have, the more densely urban our living patterns are
likely to be. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg believes that the masses of
city-dwelling singles will sort themselves into “urban tribes,” based
not on kinship, but rather on shared interests. The hipsters, the
foodies, the dog people, and so on. Klinenberg teaches at NYU, so he
would know. As a result, cities will gradually transform from centers of
economic and cultural foment into what urban theorist Terry Nichols
Clark calls “the city as entertainment machine.”
The urban tribes may be insipid, but they’re reasonably benign.
Kotkin sees larger cultural problems down the road. “[A] society that is
increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with
serving current needs than addressing the future,” he writes. “We could
tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating
today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.”
The economic effects are similarly unclear. On the one hand, judging
from the booming economic progress in highly single countries such as
Singapore and Taiwan, singletons can work longer hours and move more
easily for jobs. Which would make a single society good for the economy.
(At least in the short term, until the entitlement systems break
because there aren’t enough new taxpayers being born.) There is,
however, an alternative economic theory. Last summer demographers
Patrick Fagan and Henry Potrykus published a paper examining the effect
of nonmarriage on the labor participation rate. Fagan and Potrykus were
able to identify a clear statistical effect of marriage on men’s labor
participation. What they found is that without the responsibility of
families to provide for, unmarried American males have historically
tended to drop out of the labor force, exacerbating recessionary
tendencies in the economy. We’ll soon find out which view is correct.
And as for politics, the Democratic party clearly believes that
single Americans will support policies that grow the government
leviathan while rolling back the institutions that have long shaped
civil society. The Obama campaign targeted these voters by offering them
Planned Parenthood and Julia.
That the Republican party hasn’t figured out how to court singles may
partly be a function of failing to notice their rapid growth. But
before the GOP starts working on schemes to pander to singletons, it’s
worth considering an alternative path.
Rather than entering a bidding war with the Democratic party for the
votes of Julias, perhaps the GOP should try to convince them to get
married, instead. At the individual level, there’s nothing wrong with
forgoing marriage. But at scale, it is a dangerous proposition for a
society. That’s because marriage, as an institution, is helpful to all
involved. Survey after survey has shown that married people are happier,
wealthier, and healthier than their single counterparts. All of the
research suggests that having married parents dramatically improves the
well-being of children, both in their youth and later as adults.
As Robert George put it after the election, limited government
“cannot be maintained where the marriage culture collapses and families
fail to form or easily dissolve. Where these things happen, the health,
education, and welfare functions of the family will have to be
undertaken by someone, or some institution, and that will sooner or
later be the government.” Marriage is what makes the entire Western
project—liberalism, the dignity of the human person, the free market,
and the limited, democratic state—possible. George continues, “The two
greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty
and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the
institution of marriage. These institutions will, in the end, stand or
Instead of trying to bribe single America into voting Republican,
Republicans might do better by making the argument—to all
Americans—that marriage is a pillar of both freedom and liberalism.
That it is an arrangement which ought to be celebrated, nurtured, and
defended because its health is integral to the success of our grand
national experiment. And that Julia and her boyfriend ought to go ahead
and tie the knot.
Read the full story here.