WHAT KIND of people will we Americans be 40 years from now? To a surprising extent, we already have a pretty good idea. About one-third of the Americans of 2022 are already alive (though not all are in this country yet), and the parents of the majority of Americans of 2022 are alive already-- even if it is a little hard to visualize a three-year-old as a parent. We know also the rather widely varying birthrates of different types of people in our society, and we know something--though less than would be desirable--about the numbers and kinds of people who are immigrating here, and who may come in larger (or smaller) numbers in the future.

The big news, announced most recently in a national study prepared by the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, is that a smaller proportion of us in 2022 will be white and non-Hispanic than is now the case. They expect that percentage to decline from 80 percent in 1980 to 75 percent in 2000, and though they make no estimate for 2022, the percentage seems almost certain to be lower. They expect the percentage of Asians to increase as well, from 2.5 percent in 1980 to 4 percent in 2000; the percentage of blacks is expected to rise from 11.5 percent to 12.4 percent, Hispanics from 6.4 percent to 8.6 percent.

To some this may be an alarming trend; if there are not many people left who talk openly about such things, we suppose that there are some left who worry privately about them. But the fact is that changing ethnic composition, and rising percentages of groups that are discriminated against, are as American as apple pie. In this country, as in the world generally, poorer people tend to have more children than richer people; most of the children alive at any time in our history have lived in households that were poorer and more likely to be headed by minorities than the national average. Today, blacks, Hispanics and Asians tend to have more children than those who do not fall in those groups, just as 50 years ago Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish Americans had more children than people of British descent.

As a result, in the 1970s about half of all Americans --counting each of us split up according to our ethnic origins--were descended from people who immigrated before 1840 and half from people who immigrated after 1840; the large majority of blacks, we might add, came from the pre-1840 group. So you could say that we are already a nation made up of people who were regarded, within recent historical memory, as minorities. Moreover, although each generation of American children tends to come from households with lower socioeconomic status than the contemporary generation of adults, we have had rises in real incomes in every generation of our history. Lower socioeconomic status has not proved an insurmountable handicap; Americans have leapfrogged ahead of each other, generation after generation.

We see no reason to expect that this will not happen again. The population of children in the nation today is made up--to a greater extent than the population of adults--of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. It is one of the major tasks of society's institutions to help their parents prepare them to be productive citizens. There is evidence--rising test scores, for example--that whatever our temporary economic problems, this is happening. These children will be joined, when they are in their twenties or thirties, by immigrants of the same age in numbers that cannot be precisely predicted, but which are likely, if history is a guide, to be related to the state of the economy. Immigrants are usually people of above-average initiative and flexibility, and they almost always improve vastly their socioeconomic status. The American people are going to look different in 2022, and they will have had different experiences and backgrounds in many cases. But with some luck, and if we have the good sense to draw on the lesson of success our history teaches, they can be more prosperous, productive and tolerant than the Americans of today.