By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A surge in Hispanics and Asians is set to dramatically change the face of the United States over the next 50 years, with no one ethnic group the majority, according to U.S. figures that depict an aging nation with slower population growth.
By 2060, non-whites will make up 57 percent of the U.S. population, more than doubling from 116.2 million in 2012 to 241.3 million, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau released on Wednesday. Racial minorities are now 37 percent of the population, it said.
The shift will largely be fueled by minority births that continue to outpace those of whites, the agency said, based on data from the 2010 Census.
Nearly one in three U.S. residents will be Hispanic by 2060, up from one in six now, it said. The Asian population is also expected to more than double over the next five decades. (For a graphic, see http://link.reuters.com/weh64t)
"The U.S. will become a plurality nation, where the non-Hispanic white population remains the largest single group, but no group is in the majority," Thomas Mesenbourg, the agency's acting director, said in a statement.
The United States has been on a steady path to greater racial diversity, and experts have predicted for years that minorities would be the "majority" before 2050. The Census Bureau on Wednesday projected that would happen in 2043.
Such a shift may take decades, but the expected changes are already reshaping politics, public policy, the economy and consumer spending.
The looming changes are especially evident as the country grapples with controversial issues from immigration and gay marriage to Medicare reform and social safety net programs in the wake of the recent presidential election.
Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama won a second term with overwhelming support from Latinos, blacks and younger voters. Gay marriage - now before the nation's top court - has been legalized in several states, which experts say shows growing acceptance among younger Americans.
Companies and advertisers have adapted strategies amid changing U.S. demographics by targeting more shopping malls aimed at Hispanic shoppers.
Although the white population has already declined in several states like California and Texas, the report underscores the trend nationwide, said Steve Murdock, former Census director and a sociologist at Rice University.
"This is increasingly a pervasive diversification ... It's not a few areas," he said.
Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin cautioned that the report is only a prediction based on factors that could change.
"Minority groups are clearly gaining in numbers, but we can't be certain exactly when we'll become a 'majority minority' nation," he said. "This gives us a sense of what we might look like, but we can't be sure. This is a half-century from now."
THE 'OLDEST OLD'
The number of older Americans is expected to more than double.
Those age 65 and older will rise from 43.1 million in 2012, or one in seven, to 92 million in 2060, or one in five, according to the Census Bureau.
"The increase in the number of the 'oldest old' would be even more dramatic," the agency said in its statement.
Americans age 85 and older will more than triple from 5.9 million to 18.2 million over the same period, it predicted.
"Projections show the older population would continue to be predominately non-Hispanic white, while younger ages are increasingly minority," Census wrote.
Earlier this year, births of non-white U.S. babies for the first time reached more than 51 percent, a trend influenced by the rise in interracial marriages.
Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center said the Census findings signal the nation's dramatic division into two main groups: the older white population and the increasingly diverse younger generations.
The change in demographics will present challenges to policymakers. As the population ages, more people will be dependent on programs like Medicare and Social Security, but there will be fewer younger workers to pay for these programs. Lawmakers will have to balance the needs of the different groups.
"These are uncharted waters for this country," Taylor said.
Even as the white population declines, it will still make up the largest ethnic group, even though whites will no longer hold the majority. In 2060, there will be about 179 million whites compared, for example, to 128.8 million Hispanics, Census said.
As for Census' prediction that whites will become the minority in 2043, Hopkins' Cherlin said, "I'm not convinced we're going to get there that fast."
Overall, Census said U.S. population growth is expected to slow more than previously expected, in part due to decreasing births and immigration. Last month, Pew reported that U.S. births had fallen to a record low, especially among immigrants.
Murdock, who led the Census Bureau under President George W. Bush, said that is due in part to the recent recession that ran from 2007 to 2009. "To what extent that is a temporary or long-term issue is still unclear," he added.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)