The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What America will look like in 2050, in 4 charts

Placeholder while article actions load

In 35 years time -- time enough for several presidents, more than a few changes in the control of Congress, and a few dozen new seasons of "House of Cards" -- America will look different.

Not entirely different of course, but, as we've noted in the past, its demographics will have shifted enough to be noticeable. And with the release of new projections from Pew Research tracking how religious beliefs are expected to evolve, we now have a fuller picture of how America will have changed by the time today's toddlers are stalking Capitol Hill. Even if we don't necessarily know what it will mean for American politics.

Let's start with the shift in America's religious attitudes, according to Pew. In brief summary, more Americans will identify as being "unaffiliated" with any organized religion. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will be atheistic or agnostic; it simply includes the wide body of people who don't categorize their belief systems into an existing religious practice. People who are spiritual in a broad sense are included, but Wiccans, for example, aren't.

Otherwise, the country's religious beliefs don't change much; it will still be largely Christian. (Globally, Pew predicts, the number of Muslims will nearly match the number of Christians -- and those who are unaffiliated will decline as a percentage of the world's population.)

Let's also loop in two demographic trends that we already knew. Earlier this week, we looked at state-by-state estimates of the over-65 population by 2040. The national picture is the same over the long-term: A big increase in the number of elderly Americans, surging to become nearly the most populous segment of society.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that Americans have been living longer, meaning that the demarcation of 65 as "old" is more distant from the average life expectancy. Another is that today's so-called Millennials are 2050's 65-plussers. (The most common age in America last year was 22.)

Then, there's the shift in America's racial and ethnic makeup. The Census Bureau recognizes Hispanics as a distinct ethnicity as opposed to a race, so we've broken out non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and other racial identities below, including Hispanics as a separate category. And that category is expected to grow quickly.

All of those figures are raw population counts. The changes are perhaps easier to see when shown as comparative percentages.

As anyone interested in politics knows, that boom in the size of the Hispanic population has driven a lot of debate over the past three years. Republicans are struggling with two conflicting interests: Developing a solution on immigration that will satisfy the concerns of the Hispanic population, a potential future voting bloc, while note turning off older white voters, the heart of their current support base. (And if you're skeptical that measures undertaken now could affect voting patterns in 35 years, ask an historian to tell you about what happened to the South after the Johnson administration.)

That said, it's impossible to know with any certainty what the shift above means for 2050 politics. A drop in the density of the white and Christian votes seems like bad news for Republicans, while an increase in older voters seems like good news. But for two reasons, a long-term projection like that doesn't tell us much.

First, older voters weren't always so Republican and so likely to vote. And again, today's Millennials -- the people who helped bring Obama to the White House -- will be those older voters. Last year, the Times looked at how birth year affects politics -- and the politics of an age range change as generations move into and out of it.

But second, as the Republican effort to figure out immigration makes clear, parties change, too. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will maintain their existing positions ad infinitum; for all of our frequent skepticism about the limits of the two-party system, the parties do evolve (slowly) in response to the shifting electorate. Once upon a time, Democrats defended slavery. They no longer do. In 35 years' time, who knows what positions each party will hold.

What we can assume, however, is that both parties will hold positions that include consideration of the non-religious, people of color and the elderly. (Social Security may be the one party policy that will survive ad infinitum.) American politics has always evolved, because America has always evolved. And now we have something of a sense of what it will look like.