How America Learns, Works and Spends Is Changing

 Susan Milligan

Advertisers are featuring multigenerational families in TV spots instead of just nuclear families, a nod to the Hispanic consumers' culture. A California law that took effect last year lifted restrictions on bilingual education, mirroring a national trend toward dual-language instruction. Businesses are recruiting with inclusion in mind – not just to appeal to minority applicants, but to young white job-seekers who expect a diverse workforce.

The country is getting more ethnically and racially diverse, with demographers anticipating that 10 states will be majority-minority in the next decade, leading to a 2044 tipping point when whites are expected to be a national minority. A recent study also found that in more than half of states, white deaths are exceeding white births, accelerating the trend.

But while much of the focus has been on the political impact of the change in population, experts see broader – and more permanent – changes in how America learns, works and spends.

Whether it's running schools, attracting business investment or talented workers to a state, "people are going to have to get used to the fact" that the newer generations are less white, and "they're going to have to be welcoming some of these new minorities," says demographer William Frey, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of the book "Diversity Explosion." And "if you're selling products to young people or providing services, you'd better be ready to deal with the minority population," he adds.

Immigration over decades has increased minority populations. But according to recently published research by demographers Kenneth Johnson and Rogelio Saenz, the birth and death rates of whites has also been a driving factor. Just four years ago, Johnson notes in an interview, there were 17 states with a "natural decrease" in the white population (meaning there were more deaths than births). Two years later, there were 26. "We were stunned," says Johnson, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, adding that the team expected an increase of perhaps just two or three states.

A natural decline in the non-Hispanic white population has been happening for more than a decade in California, Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia; Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, Nevada and New Hampshire experienced the same trend in the last few years. By 2016 (the last year for which statistics were available), Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont were added to the list.

Part of the reason, Johnson says, is that the white population is considerably older than minority population groups, so whites are dying off faster. Further, the birth rate is lower – across all races and ethnicities, he says, but especially among whites. The latter is likely due to the recession (since people may delay starting or expanding families during economic downturns), but the birth rate has still not recovered from that period, he says. If birth rates were at the pre-recession, 2007 level, Johnson says, there would be 500,000 more babies in the country.

Student debt and a general trend toward women delaying childbearing have also likely contributed to the lower birth rate, he says. And the opioid crisis – which has disproportionately affected middle-aged whites – may be making the difference in some communities, Johnson says.

In Johnson's home state of New Hampshire, for example, there are 400 to 500 deaths a year from opioid abuse, he says. "That's enough that it pushed New Hampshire into white natural decline (in population) faster than it would have been," he says.

The trend has potential implications for political campaigns (since minority populations have tended to be Democratic), but has not yet been the determinant factor Democrats had hoped.

But the decreasing share of the white population is already having an impact on commerce and education, experts say, with businesses and education systems adjusting to the reality of an emerging non-white majority.

That means schools will increasingly be pressed to address the needs of students for whom English is not a first language, says Saenz, dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas—San Antonio. That is already well underway: A U.S. Department of Education report found that 39 states had implemented a dual-language program in at least one school district in the 2012-13 school year. The most common second languages were Spanish, Chinese, Native American languages and French. A new California law vacates a 1998 referendum that required English learners to study in English-immersion classrooms (unless their parents had signed waivers).

Those kids, Saenz says, "are also more likely to come from a low economic background," presenting a new set of challenges for school districts – especially in the arena of "high-stakes testing," he adds.

When the kids grow up and look for jobs, recruiters need to be culturally attuned if they want to attract the best talent, says Veronica Cool, whose firm, Cool & Associates, helps businesses and organizations with Hispanic strategic outreach. For example, Latinos are more likely to attend a job fair if a community "influencer" – such as a Latino radio DJ – recommends it, as opposed to seeing a print ad in the newspaper, she says.

The family, too, tends to be involved in decisions such as taking a job or buying a big-ticket item, she says – and employers and marketers should be aware of that. "The mom is getting the flyer for the job and handing it to her son and saying, 'Go here," Cool says. "Things like that – that's how you gain access" to the Hispanic community, she adds.

Product marketing, too, is changing dramatically with demographic shifts, experts say. And it's not just advertising in Spanish, says Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence. It means selling products with Hispanic or other minority cultural norms in mind.

A commercial with a white family might show parents and a couple of kids around a table. But to appeal to Latinos, the commercial would feature a multigenerational group around the table, adds Sturgeon, who also works at an advertising firm. Many ad firms, he says, now have Hispanic marketing teams to address these changes in the consumer market.

Avon, for example, not only conducted a study of what the Latina consumer wants in her makeup bag, but has ads featuring confident, successful-looking Latinas as sellers of the cosmetics. The Wegmans supermarket chain has Latino music playing in the Latin foods aisle (and in the area of the produce section carrying Hispanic favorites like plantains) in some of its northern Virginia stores.

A commercial showing people watching sports should not only include a diverse cast, but should feature soccer – and not college football – on the screen, says Felipe Korzenny, founder and director of the Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication at Florida State University. Even a coffee commercial has its cultural implications, he says: While the traditional coffee ad shows sleepy consumers being awakened by the aroma of java, Hispanics see the morning as a joyful time, when they give thanks for living another day. The "coffee as jump starter of the day" theme is just not relatable for Hispanics, Korzenny adds.

The diversity of the nation might not yet be reflected in political power or C-suite business leadership, Korzenny says. But the sheer numbers will force a change, he believes. "I am very optimistic. Money is ultimately going to speak louder than anything else," Korzenny says. "Marketers are going to follow the money. And the money is targeting the emotions and cultures of people who are going to be the majority."

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