This paper examines the degree to which fertility and socio-demographic changes are reducing the size of the U.S.-born less-skilled working-age population in the United States. By less-skilled, we mean persons with a high school diploma or less. By consequences of fertility change, we mean the repercussions of both high fertility in past decades (the Baby Boom) and below replacement native-born fertility in more recent decades. By consequences of socio-demographic change, we refer to the rise in the proportion of the population starting and finishing college. In the context of evidence indicating that the relative size of economic sectors hiring less-skilled workers has not diminished in recent decades (with the exception of manufacturing employment), we suggest these demographic and social changes imply that the country will continue to rely on less-skilled immigrant workers. We assess this idea based on analyses of U.S. Census and American Community Survey data for decennial census years starting in 1970 and running through 2010. The results show a net decline of more than 7 million persons in the U.S.-born less-skilled working-age population since 1990, and a looming decline of more than 12 million between now and 2030. Educational upgrading, especially among women, contributes a notable share to these shifts, but so does earlier high fertility (the aging of the Baby Boomers) and more recent low native fertility. Interestingly, the number of less-skilled unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in 2010 is smaller than the decline in the size of the less-skilled U.S.-born working-age population over the same period.
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The argument has also been advanced that the unauthorized Mexican population in the country grew in size after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 because that marked the beginnings of substantially increased enforcement at the U.S./Mexico border and these build-ups had the effect of encouraging migrants not to return to Mexico (Massey and Pren 2012; Massey, Durand and Malone 2002). While this undoubtedly has played a role in increasing the stock of migrants in the country, it seems likely that much, if not most, of the growth derives from other sources. For one thing, these increases began before IRCA was passed. For another, research has shown that the border enforcement build-up did not become large enough to become very effective until the mid-2000s, at the earliest (Bean and Lowell 2007), and growth continued before that. For still another, most migrants had been accumulating social and economic reasons not to return to their places of origin for years. This is reflected in the fact the rural-to-urban migrants in Mexico have been slow to return to their small towns and villages even though no enforcement constraints are present to discourage them from doing so (Villarreal and Hamilton 2012).
A related question is whether the amount of less-skilled work needing to be done has similarly shrunk. In manufacturing, the answer would be yes. Since 1970, the share of manufacturing jobs in the economy has halved, dropping from more than one in four to about one in eight. The drop-off in the share of manufacturing jobs held by persons with a high school diploma or less has been similarly precipitous (also falling from approximately one in four in 1970 to approximately one in eight today). Interestingly, during this same time, the overall number of manufacturing jobs stayed at around 21 million. But because of overall job growth, a relatively smaller share of less-skilled persons works today in manufacturing. Also, many of today’s manufacturing jobs require at least some college. Thus, the relative demand for less-skilled workers in manufacturing has declined. However, during this same period, the share of the less-skilled workforce in service jobs has grown considerably (Freeman 2007). As a result, from 1980 until today, the number of non-manufacturing jobs held by less-skilled, younger males has held steady at roughly 3.7 to 3.8 million, or approximately 45 percent of the less-skilled, male workforce ages 25 to 44. However, because service-sector work often precludes the same opportunities or pay structure as manufacturing, native low-skilled men have increasingly left the labor force altogether (Juhn and Potter 2006). Nonparticipation in the labor force by men too young to retire more than tripled between the 1960s and 1994, and that increase was concentrated among men with low skills (Murphy and Topel 1997).
Roughly, a decline of this magnitude implies that every 1000 native women of childbearing age would need to have about 400 more births per year to reproduce the native population. Over a 10-year period, this would result in about six million more births. In other words, after 10 years of current levels of childbearing, the native-born population would contain almost six million fewer persons (allowing for some deaths and emigration) than would occur if a replacement TFR of 2.1 had been attained over the period. Thus, over the past 30 years, the size of new cohorts born to native-born mothers in the United States has been shrinking. A hint of this is evident in the drop in the inter-decade native growth rate, which was 21.2 percent during the 1950s, but only 7.8 percent from 2000 to 2010 (authors’ calculations from U.S. census data). Even more dramatic, the size of the younger native-born population (ages 25–34) has been shrinking since 1980. This means that the numbers of natives available to meet societal workforce needs are now in both relative and absolute decline, on account of diminished fertility alone.
These are calculated from Census and American Community Survey (ACS) data (Ruggles et al. 2010). Some of the numbers on schooling have been adjusted because of differences in questions across census years. In the 1990 Census long-form, the response categories for the educational attainment question do not allow us to distinguish between persons who completed less than 1 year of college and those who completed one or more years. Thus, unlike in other years, in 1990 some persons will be counted in the “some college” category even though their highest level of completed education is a high school diploma. In order to make counts comparable across years, it is necessary to adjust for the over-counting of the “some college” population in 1990. To do so, we calculated the proportion of the “some college” population that did not complete a full year of college in 1980 and 2000 by age, sex and nativity. We then subtracted the average of this proportion from the “some college” population in 1990 from its appropriate age, sex and nativity group and added it to the “high school” category.
The numbers of less-skilled U.S.-born persons working, and especially changes in those numbers as measured by differences including levels in 2010, are subject to multiple sources of influence (e.g., including the downward effects of the Great Recession on employment, declines in male labor force participation and increases in female participation stemming from long-term secular trends, as well as population dynamics and educational upgrading over the period). They are thus especially difficult to interpret with much confidence. In an effort to improve in a very rough way, we adjust the 2010 totals for the numbers of males and females working and for trends in labor force participation over the interval, seeking better to isolate the effects of educational upgrading and overall population shifts. But this adjustment is at best approximate, and in any case, problems of interpretation remain in trying to say what exactly accounts for the results involving changes in components of persons working as opposed to changes in the numbers of persons of working-age.
One question concerns the possibility that persons with college educations could be filling jobs previously filled by those with high school diplomas or less. Since 1990, about one-third of college graduates have worked in occupations that generally have not required a college degree (Abel et al. 2014). Some research suggests that a reversal of demand for high-skilled workers has pushed educated people further down the occupational ladder and some of the less educated out of the labor force (Beaudry et al. 2013). But if the labor market were truly one big ladder and that jobs were that interchangeable, more job competition among less-skilled natives and immigrants should have emerged – and it has not.
In recent years, the magnitude of the decline of the less-skilled, younger U.S.-born workforce is understated because the increasing shares of this workforce are themselves the children of immigrants. Unlike the ACS, which distinguishes only between U.S.- and foreign-born persons, the Current Population Survey (CPS) allows one to distinguish between the first-generation (the immigrants), the second-generation (the children of the immigrants), and the third-and-later generation (the grandchildren and later of the immigrants). The tabulations here are of the second-generation population between the ages of 25–55 by level of educational attainment and gender for the years 1995 and 2010 in the CPS. While clear majorities of second-generation adults receive education beyond high school, non-trivial shares either do not complete or do not advance beyond high school and thus join what we have referred to here as the less-skilled workforce.
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Brown, S.K., Bean, F.D., Bachmeier, J.D. (2018). The Implications of Native-Born Fertility and Other Socio-Demographic Changes for Less-Skilled U.S. Immigration. In: Poston, Jr., D. (eds) Low Fertility Regimes and Demographic and Societal Change. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64061-7_5
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