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Demographer's Art of Prediction Often Imitates Life

By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; A02

On Oct. 17, a Hispanic woman, living somewhere in Los Angeles, will give birth to a baby boy. It will be a landmark moment. The arrival of her son will make the population of the United States hit 300 million for the first time.

Or so predicts William H. Frey, an internationally regarded demographer from the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"It is a little speculative," he said, laughing.

Still, it is the accuracy of his predictions in the early 1990s about age and race that have made him a go-to guy for the media. Frey's "map of America" turned into reality in the 2000 Census. His research about the shifting population of the United States, documented in more than 100 publications and several books, has made headlines in the Economist, the New Yorker, Forbes and numerous newspapers.

Frey, 59, has a remarkably detailed knowledge of where people live, who their friends are, how they are likely to vote and what they desire from life.

It was in 1967 that the United States welcomed its 200 millionth resident -- two years before Frey began his career by embarking on a PhD program at Brown University specializing in demography. Nearly 40 years later -- as the United States is set to hit another milestone -- a journey into Frey's mind reveals a fascinating picture of a future United States.

Looking to 2026, Frey imagines a country that is even more diverse -- where many more people are bilingual and more road signs and products are labeled in English and Spanish. He imagines a country split by age, with older and younger states driven by different political interests.

"I like to tweak conventional wisdom," Frey says from his office, where reports and political magazines are sprawled across his desk. "People think of America as a melting pot, but that is a generalization. Some areas are, and others are not too different than they were 20 years ago." In fact, Frey has pinpointed three Americas -- the multicultural "melting pot" states, the predominantly white heartlands and the "New Sunbelt" -- that are pulling in young suburbanites.

What will change going forward? In 10 years, minorities are expected to make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, Frey says. Ten years after that, they will have a plethora of high-profile positions as members of Congress, judges and business leaders, he predicts.

Some will have moved from the melting-pot areas to growing states such as Nevada and Arizona. But other places -- such as the Midwest -- will remain largely white, he says. There, baby boomers will stay settled while younger residents move away. This will lift the age of the population and shift the political landscape.

Retired, but still active, they will revisit the techniques they used in the 1960s when they fought passionately for civil rights and equality for women, Frey maintains, but their cause will have shifted. "There may be some '60s radicalism among the baby boomers, but this time it will be for medical care," he says.

That will be one America, he says. But elsewhere, the number of under-35s will be on the up.

Frey has already written about the emerging New Sunbelt, which includes states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington and Idaho. There, younger families that are no longer able to afford suburbia in New Jersey or California will move in.

In 20 years, they will be long settled and pushing their "fiscally conservative but socially liberal" political interests to the fore.

"They are chasing the American dream," Frey says. "It used to be a home with a Chevy and a television. Now it is a McMansion, an SUV and a satellite dish."

Moreover, these once typically white areas will start attracting middle-class immigrants also chasing an ideal lifestyle and others coming to fill newly created jobs, Frey predicts. The racial dynamics will change but not go so far as to make these states fully fledged melting pots.

Talk of race will have changed dramatically, Frey says. By 2026, "federally discussed racial categories," as they are used today, will be far less meaningful, he predicts. In Los Angeles, 25 percent of the population will be mixed race, with 20 percent in New York. One in six babies born that year will most likely not fall into a single category, he says, citing a rising number of relationships between Hispanics and Asians and other races.

One city that is seeing vast changes is Washington. Frey began working in the city in January 2003, but still spends much of the year in Michigan.

"It is a unique city that attracts people from all over," he says. "Not long ago, this was a mainly black and white city, but now it is much more of an international city."

Recently, Frey has turned his mind to what he says was once the city with the "most rooted" black population in the country -- New Orleans -- where nine in 10 inhabitants were born in Louisiana. He says that "the big issue now is how many people are going to come back" after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. His work has shown that it is the poorest people, living the farthest away, who have the least information on what is happening to their homes and may be the least likely to return.

If they do, Frey will be watching. After all, demography is his thing: "It's been said that 'demography is destiny,' but that grossly understates its relevance," he said. "In a country that is, at once, aging and 'younging' and receiving newcomers from all over the world, demographic shifts affect all of us, every day."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company