Reading the tea leaves in the U.S. population census results.

County Population Change: 2000-2010Now that the full scope of information is being released from the latest U.S. population census, many news reports about age demographics tend to focus on the composition of families in urban areaa … the impact of immigration of all stripes … as well as the occasional article about the phenomenon of large family units in “exotic” places like rural Utah and Idaho.

Most of these news reports give the impression that age demographics are getting younger.

Don’t believe it. Instead, we can turn to the U.S. Bureau of Census’ own figures which tell a different story.

In reality, there are fewer children today in most American neighborhoods. In fact, the share of population under the age of 18 declined in ~95% of the counties since 2000.

The Bureau’s stats also show that the number of American households reporting that they have children under age 18 has remained roughly static (at ~38 million) … even while the country’s total population grew by ~10% over the decade.

As a result, the share of all U.S. households with children is only about 33%, down from ~36% ten years earlier … while the share of the U.S. population under age 18 is 24%, compared to 26% ten years earlier.

These census figures and others have become grist for many researchers in recent months, with a number of intriguing reports being issued. One, released by the Brookings Institution, focuses on the changing nature of Suburban America. Alan Berube, author of the report, notes that there is a continuing blurring of the once-sharp lines that used to demarcate central cities from the suburbs.

Instead, there now appear to be more similarities between cities and their “inner core” suburbs, rather than between inner and outer suburban communities.

Urban development guru Joel Kotkin sees this development in a larger sociological context — noting that people tend to “self-select” where they live based on “like” characteristics that go beyond mere economic elements to also include psychographic aspects.

In Kotkin’s view, that trend has contributed to the vast differences we see in political and voting behavior in cities, the suburbs, and exurbs. We may have much less overt segregation based on race or ethnic background … but it’s been replaced by a self-segregation based on perspectives and attitudes.

No wonder it seems that people are “talking past each other” — rather than engaging one another — in our national dialogue about the economy and the government’s proper role in guiding it.

Don’t look for this dynamic to change anytime soon.

Joel Kotkin: America’s Best Years Are Still Ahead

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel KotkinIn the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.

It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.

The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”

As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.

Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.

By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.

Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”

Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”

No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?

Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.