Dan Walters: As California population growth slows, it’s becoming a grayer state

07/06/2014 12:00 AM

07/07/2014 8:13 PM

From its inception – first as a Spanish colony, later as part of Mexico, briefly as an independent nation and finally as a state – California has been a youthful society.

Waves of young immigrants, drawn by its expansive opportunities to find fame and fortune, and periodic surges in its birth rate generated high population growth and kept California relatively young.

No more.

Immigration has slowed to a trickle, and with high outflow to other states and a rapidly declining birth rate, California’s once-vibrant population growth has slowed to a walk – just one-third the rate of the 1980s.

The corollary is that those once-young immigrants and their progeny of yesteryear are getting older. As they do, California is growing grayer – fast.

A new Census Bureau report reveals that when the 2010 census was taken, California had 4.2 million residents age 65 or older, or 11.4 percent of its 37 million residents.

That was still one of the nation’s lower proportions of the aged, but in the four years since then, the state’s 65-plus population has been growing rapidly, due largely to the aging of the huge postwar baby boom cohort.

The oldest of the baby boomers are turning 68 this year while the youngest are 50, or soon will be. And with California’s traditional influx of young immigrants and babies in decline, the aging of the baby boom generation will have an immense impact on the state over the next 15 years.

The state Department of Finance projects that by 2020, California’s over-65 population will have increased by 50 percent from 2010 to 6 million and by 2020 will have doubled to 8.4 million as even the youngest baby boomers reach 65.

Proportionately, the 11.4 percent in 2010 will nearly double to 19 percent by 2030. After that, the proportion will continue to grow until the baby boomers die off and/or California sees new waves of babies and immigrants.

This is an immense demographic, generational and socioeconomic change that will reverberate through every segment of California’s society – housing, medical care, retail business, employment and education, just to mention the most obvious.

As this evolution from a youth-centered culture gives way to one dominated by the needs and demands of the elderly and near-elderly, California’s politics will be the forum in which the generational conflicts play themselves out.

For instance, child-oriented expenditures, such as those for schools and child care, will face more competition for public funds from programs serving the elderly, such as nursing homes, Meals on Wheels, in-home care and supplemental Social Security payments.

Are California politicians even aware that this vast change is beginning, much less prepared for its consequences?

It’s doubtful, given the notoriously short-range focus of the political trade.

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