PHOTO: Naturalization ceremony

Immigrants take the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony at Chatham Manor in Stafford County.

WHETHER it knows it or not, the Fredericksburg region is already fighting “a war for talent” in “a highly volatile economy in which the new normal is certain uncertainty,” Dr. James Johnson, distinguished professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, recently told attendees at a “Good Jobs Here!” seminar sponsored by the George Washington Regional Commission and the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance.

“Lots of things we can debate. Demographics is not one of them,” Johnson told the assembled crowd, pointing out that demography-fueled trends are already creating disruptions in the way Fredericksburg area residents live and work. How business and political leaders manage those transitions will be key to the region’s future competitiveness, he said.

Virginia is one of just five southern states (including Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas) Johnson calls “migration magnet states.” They account for 77 percent of the nation’s net population growth, with the other southern states combined accounting for the remaining 22 percent, according to the Census Bureau. In addition to legal and illegal immigration, a massive domestic population shift from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West has been taking place, involving all demographic groups.

Driven by domestic and international migration, Virginia’s population increased 6.5 percent between 2010 and 2018, while it was double the rate in the Fredericksburg region (13.6 percent), Johnson pointed out. So those local growing pains were not in your imagination.

The second demographic trend is what Johnson calls the “graying and browning of America.” As 81 million native-born non-Hispanic baby boomers retire (10,000 will turn 65 every day until 2029) and live longer, a record low national fertility rate below current population replacement levels means that there are not enough younger workers to replace them. This “silver tsunami” is the main cause of the coming crises in Social Security and Medicare’s hospital fund, which are both predicted to become insolvent by 2020 and 2026, respectively.

“Elder care will be a big challenge going forward,” Johnson warned, adding that “this is the first time in history that there are four generations in the workforce, and next year there will be five,” with grandparents raising their grandchildren alone one of the most rapidly growing household formations.

Retirees in the states that, like Virginia, are experiencing population growth are being replaced by immigrants who, under a 1965 liberalized federal immigration law, are coming predominantly from Asian and Latin American countries instead of Europe. Up to 45 percent of the current illegal immigrant population did not sneak across the border, Johnson noted, but entered the U.S. legally to study or work, and then overstayed their visas.

The surge of younger immigrants also means that mixed-race marriages, illegal in Virginia until 1967, will become more common in the future. But there will likely not be enough marriageable men for every women who wants a husband, and many educated women who remain single will choose not to bear children alone.

Male college completion rates have slipped to 40 percent, and women are set to surpass men in the paid workforce. A large cohort of disabled, incarcerated, unemployed or underemployed men also means that millions of children are and will be living in what Johnson called “concentrated and hyper-segregated pockets of poverty,” a situation that does not bode well for future regional prosperity.

Demography is destiny, and the falling national birth rate—the lowest in three decades, including not only native-born whites, but blacks, Hispanics and Asians as well—is irreversible.

There is also evidence that in 2017 and 2018, the Census Bureau overestimated births, underestimated deaths, and overestimated net migration. “These tremors will turn into an earthquake as more and more municipalities, counties, and even states face irreversible demographic decline, leading to inability to pay for long-term liabilities, and in many cases, even current services,” according to Lyman Stone, research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

Virginia in general, and Fredericksburg in particular, are insulated from declining population rates for now. But to remain competitive with other regions, Johnson urged local leaders to come up with creative ways to manage “the silver tsunami,” leverage Virginia’s “international migration dividend” by welcoming immigrants and enacting policies that share prosperity across all demographic categories, directly address the issue of Fredericksburg’s “wayward sons,” and improve K-12 education to ensure that businesses here continue to have a “steady flow of talent.”

These are all good recommendations. But political and business leaders should also remember why domestic and international migrants are moving here from high-tax states and socialist countries in the first place, and try not to muck up a good thing.

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