New Census projections reveal when the US population may start declining

The US population is projected to peak in 2080, then start declining, according to a new analysis by the US Census Bureau.

Projections released Thursday predict the country’s population will reach nearly 370 million in 2080, and by 2100 will have declined to 366 million.

It’s the first time Census projections have indicated the US population will decline, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

But as the US population ages and the birth rate declines, these latest Census projections reveal how the number of newcomers arriving in the US could significantly change this picture going forward.

In addition to what analysts predict is the most likely scenario, based on current immigration trends, the projections show what US population growth could look like with higher immigration, lower immigration or zero immigration.

In the zero-immigration scenario, the US population would peak next year at 333.4 million. In the lower-immigration scenario, it would peak at 345.9 million in 2043. If immigration increases, then the population is projected to continue climbing through the end of the century.

“These (projections) emphasize that immigration is an even a bigger contributor long-term to our demographic growth and stability than perhaps it was in the past,” Frey says.

The Census analysis also predicts a slower rate of population growth than previous projections, due to new data reflecting recent trends, Census demographer Sandra Johnson said in a news release.

“The U.S. has experienced notable shifts in the components of population change over the last five years,” Johnson said. “Some of these, like the increases in mortality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, are expected to be short-term while others, including the declines in fertility that have persisted for decades, are likely to continue into the future.”

Why focus on immigration?

Experts look at three major factors when predicting population growth: births, deaths and immigration.

For years, demographers have pointed out that the US population growth rate is slowing as birth rates decline. When that’s happened in the past, immigration has made up the difference.

But how many people come to the US can change based on policies and politics here and around the world. A document explaining Thursday’s Census projections says immigration is “arguably the most uncertain of the population change components” used in projections.

New US citizens wave flags after taking an oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony on April 25, 2023, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. - Brian Snyder/Reuters
New US citizens wave flags after taking an oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony on April 25, 2023, at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. - Brian Snyder/Reuters

How the US compares to other nations

But despite its uncertainty, immigration is vitally important, Frey says.

“We’re a country that’s getting older. It’s growing more slowly. Immigration is able to put some of the brakes on that so that we’re not in the situation of Japan or Germany or Italy, which have much more difficulty in terms of the already slowing labor force or declining population.”

Overall, the world’s population is rising and could peak at a record 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s, according to the United Nations. And this year, India overtook China to become the world’s most populous country.

Meanwhile, China and many European nations have started to see birth rates dropping. Many demographers and economists see cause for concern. But some environmental activists are less worried, describing potential population declines as a trend that could help the planet.

Still, Frey says, something about the latest Census projections stands out.

The low rate of population growth, and the projections of a decline, are something “we’ve really not seen for most of our lifetimes, until now.”

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