There are important nuggets buried in the Census Bureau's new data on the American population, ones that reinforce what we've understood for a while: America is getting more gray and less white. By 2050, the change will look something like this:
But the Census Bureau public relations people, being public relations people, know that "TRENDS CONTINUE" isn't a great headline. Instead they went with this: "Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse, Census Bureau Reports." And sure enough, that angle found traction.
The problem is that it isn't really true. In one sense, that's because it isn't really knowable. "Millennial" isn't actually a defined thing, as the Census Bureau itself has noted in the past. When we asked in April, the bureau's chief demographer told us that, "[u]nlike the baby boom generation, the birth years and characteristics for other generations are not as distinguishable and there are varying definitions used by the public." So the bureau has delineated Boomers — 1946 to 1964 — but not "millennial."
Except it suddenly did in today's news release. "Millennials, or America’s youth born between 1982 and 2000, now number 83.1 million and represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population," the news release reads. Weirdly, those years don't match the boundaries set in other places. The White House, for example, said millennials spanned 1980 to 2004 last year, citing the Census Bureau. Pew Research predicted that millennials would pass Boomers this year, using a 1981 to 1997 definition. Other demographers we've pointed to in the past put the boundary at 1981 to 2004.
But here's the real reason that "millennial passed Boomers in 2015" isn't true. If you look at the Census Bureau data for single year of age (available here), something else becomes apparent: Millennials passed Boomers a long time ago, even by the bureau's new-found definition! (The charts below use data from each year between 2010 and 2014.)
If you go back to the Census Bureau's press release, it doesn't say that millennials just passed Boomers -- only that they have passed Boomers. ("Their size exceeds that of the 75.4 million baby boomers, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates released today.")
Generations are not real things, which we have to keep hammering on because we can't help it. But even so, if your takeaway from the new data is "Millennials have passed Boomers," the Census Bureau's PR team snookered you.