Think of it like a mushroom. Up near the top, there’s a big, fat cap of Baby Boomers; down below, the stem is struggling to hold up under the weight.

See those big bars in the middle? See the little bars to the left? (Courtesy USC)

USC’ Dowell Myers says The Day of Demographic Reckoning has come upon us. We share his thoughts because he’s the lead researcher on a recently released report from the University of Southern California and the Lucile Packard Foundation, “California’s Diminishing Resource: Children.” Myers and his team analyzed data from the 2010 census and the American Community Survey to conclude that we’re coming up on a rather large problem, economically speaking.

“It’s been sneaking up on us gradually, and it has finally arrived,” Myers told The California Report. “The oldest Baby Boomer turned 65 last year, and now 18 years of Baby Boomers are going to cross that line.”

In 1970, children made up more than one-third of California’s population. By 2030, they’re expected to account for just one-fifth. In 1970, California averaged 21 seniors for every 100 working-age adults. By 2030, that ratio is expected to rise to 36 seniors for every 100 working-age adults. Even if all of us with a mind to bear children were to get busy today in a mass effort to add to the population pool, we simply could not populate the state in time to offset the monster wave of retirees coming our way.

Instead, we’re actually having fewer children these days than we did 10 years ago. The state’s birthrate fell to 1.94 children per woman in 2010. Replacement level would be 2.1 children.

“Why is that a problem?” you ask, parked in hellacious traffic on the 80 in Berkeley.

(Also, let’s not forget a smaller population is desirable from an environmental perspective.)

Personally, Myers agrees. He would prefer a California population of, oh, around 20 million.

“The problem is, the people are already here, the people who are weighing us down, like myself: Baby Boomers. We’re not going away.”

The pool of retirees at any given time relies on the pool of working adults to pay the taxes that support the social safety net – and to buy the houses of Baby Boomers planning to finance their retirement in Palm Springs with the proceeds. If there aren’t enough buyers to keep real estate prices stratospheric, Myers says, “It isn’t going to look pretty for anybody.”

“Why is that a problem?” I asked him. After all, for Gen X and Yers who can hang on for a few years, a catastrophic drop in real estate prices might prove a real windfall. (Making a calendar note to myself here for 2023: buy home in choice neighborhood.) But then Myers and his cohort wouldn’t be able to finance their retirement in Palm Springs. He might show up at my door wanting to move in.

You might think we could reasonably expect to offset the demographic gap with in-migration. I have a friend in New Jersey who’s thinking of doing it within the next five years. Between Silicon Valley, Hollywood, organic salad greens, shale oil and who knows what New New Economic Driver drives the economy a decade from now, surely we’ll draw enough new talent to come out on top?

Not likely, Myers says. It would take an awful lot of people coming here sooner rather than later to offset the dropping birthrate.

The trend lines don’t show us growing the population. (Courtesy USC)

Ixnay on the Baby Bump strategy. Ixnay on the Import Our Workforce strategy. Final pitch: make Baby Boomers keep working. As it is, many Californians are already working in some capacity past 55 or 65 or whatever we used to think of as the Typical Retirement Date. There again, Myers is dour on the aggregate possibilities.

So what does Myers suggest? He recommends we immediately restore our commitment to educating our children as if they were going to be the workforce of the future, as opposed to potential prison inmates. Budget troubles or no, Myers calls the cuts to education in California penny wise and pound foolish.

“The bulk of our workforce, our projections show, are going to be homegrown Californians. We sure better put them all to work at really high capacity.”

That means more Californians need to get college degrees. Myers is not alone in that assessment. Those who look to the far horizon warn California will require more people with bachelors degrees than we are producing at present. Otherwise, we have a huge group of people in no position to support themselves, let alone anybody else.

California’s Baby Boomers on Track to Overwhelm State’s Younger Working Adults 6 February,2013Rachael Myrow

  • Guest

    Looking at the graph, it appears we have a 30 to 40 year span that needs to be covered and then the population levels out at a reasonable rate. When the world is horribly over-populated (4billion+), the LAST thing we need are more babies!!!! Do the math.

  • AComm2

    Gen Xers are the largest U.S. generational population. They’re born between the years 1961 – 1981. The total U.S. Gen X population is approx. 93,000,000 people. See New York Times bestselling book titled “Generations” by experts Strauss and Howe (page 318).

    H&S project the Millennials, born 1982 – 2004, at 76,000,000 people in the U.S. (updated to approx 90-95m) — see page 336

    Baby Boomers, born 1943 – 1960, are estimated at 79,000,000 people in the U.S. — see page 300 (see U.S. Census for updated number)

    The “Silent” generation, born 1925 – 1942, is at 49,000,000 people in the U.S. — see page 280

  • AComm2

    There are about 90 to 95 million Millennials in the U.S. who are are currently between 11 and 31 years old. See the U.S. Census chart below (page 4).

  • “The problem is, the people are already here, the people who are weighing us down, like myself: Baby Boomers. We’re not going away.”

    Au contraire, Mr. Meyers and everyone else will go away in time. It’s called dying. The California of 20 million he envisions will be a more lovely state for it.

    To maintain the population pyramid of past decades would require infinite growth, the hallmark of a Ponzi scheme.

  • Iamawake

    Demographics is only part of the issue. Fewer young could provide as much support if they were wealthier. Alas, Californians are becoming poorer on average as the proportion of low wage, low skills, youth grows. Thirty million people making $20K a year won’t help.

  • Angela

    Wanda, I think you might have misunderstood the fact that Myers is pointing at. The population that is over 65 ISN’T dying. They’re primed for a long life, perhaps another 25 years. That is why they’re “not going away.” Will California go on to infinite growth? No. But will there be a significant retired, aging, and co-dependent generation that we will not have enough resources to take care of for the next few decades? Yes. Myers is talking about the short run, but clearly, and in the long forseeable future, he’s not implying that there is a population pyramid.


Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
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