The US-Mexico border region has long been known as a region with a young and rapidly growing population. But the border population is aging, a reflection of national trends in both the U.S. and Mexico. Given population aging we must re-examine most of what we think we might know about border region development, trans-border interaction –including cross-border trade, and regional environmental issues. The following looks at these population trends and some of the consequences that follow1.
At the national level, the median age in both nations has been increasing since the 1970s. At that time, the median age in the U.S. was 28.2 years while in Mexico the comparable figure was 16.6 years. According to the United Nations “medium variant” projections, median ages in Mexico and the U.S. will continue to increase through 2050 (Figure 1).
Median ages in the U.S. and Mexico are converging rapidly. By 2040, the median ages will be approximately equal (U.S. = 40.8 years and Mexico = 40.3 years). By 2050, Mexico’s projected median age (43.9) is higher than the projected U.S. median age (41.7).
These national trends also apply along the border. On the Mexican side, the ten largest municipios had a median age of 16.7 in 1970 but that figure had increased to 25.6 in 2010. Along the US side of the border, the median age in the ten largest counties increased from 24.6 years in 1970 to 33.4 years in 2010 (Figure 2). On both sides of the border, median ages have been increasing by roughly 4 years per decade. If those trends continue, by 2020 the ten largest US counties along the border should have a median age of roughly 37 while the ten largest border municipiosshould have a median age of about 30.
This aging of the border population has major implications. First, border region population growth rates will be slower in the future. The rapid increase of the border population from 1950 on was fueled by births from a relatively young population and in-migration of (mainly young people). Given the aging of the border population we should see a decline in fertility. Given the aging of the national populations, we should also observe a decrease in migrants coming to the border.
Second, the age distribution of a population is a major determinant of the size and growth of the labor force. As the border population ages, we should expect a decrease in the rate of growth of the labor force.
Third, aging is also an important factor in determining the distribution of income and wealth. Young people simply do not enter the labor force at the high end of the income distribution –nor, for the most part, do young people have substantial savings. As the border population ages, we should see some improvement in wages, income, and wealth.
Fourth, age is also an important determinant of the for demand public services. Young people need schools and educational services. An older population requires much more emphasis on hospitals and health care services.
Fifth, the consumption of both durable and non-durable goods is age-dependent. The demand for housing is particularly sensitive to age-related events such as marriage, divorce, children leaving home, or the death of a spouse. The volume and composition of imports and exports is at least partly age-related and this will change dramatically what the people of the border region produce and consume.
Finally, all of this combined suggests major changes in population and economic growth rates along the border as well as changes in the structure of industry.
If this discussion seems too abstract, just imagine what the maquiladora industry might have looked like if the border population in the 1970s had a median age in the late 30s or early 40s instead of the late teens. It is unlikely that the surge in manufacturing and trade we saw then and the subsequent NAFTA agreement(s) later would have occurred with an older, more expensive workforce in the maquilas. –Jim Peach, Guest Contributor
1A more complete analysis of the aging of the border population can be found on-line at: http://scerp.org/pubs/m16/Chap.%202,%20Peach%2017-54.pdf