James Johnson: Embrace and educate diversity or ‘you got nothing’

  • Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2013 11:59 p.m.

SALISBURY — Looking at the numbers, James H. Johnson Jr. recommends that people embrace changes in the nation’s and state’s demographics rather than complain about them.

Baby boomers are hitting 65 at the rate of 8,000 a day. The number of 25- to 44-year-olds is shrinking. And the birthrate among Hispanics is twice that of whites.

“You need a next generation of talent to do what? Prepare the community and the nation,” says Johnson.

“You don’t educate them ... you got nothing.”

Johnson has a long title: William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But his warnings about the country’s unprecedented demographic transformation can be summed up in a short sentence: “Diversity rules.”

He shared that and more Friday with a large luncheon crowd at City Hall, part of City Council’s annual strategic planning retreat.

Our region is seeing a boom in population, Johnson said.

“The South has gone from the place to leave to the place to be,” he said. From 2000 to 2010, while the country’s population grew 9.5 percent, the South grew 14.3 percent, and North Carolina grew 18.5 percent.

Rowan grew only 6.2 percent.

“If the South became the cat’s meow, North Carolina would be the cat’s meow squared,” Johnson said. “Ya’ll would be a kitten.”

From 2000 to 2010, the South experienced 53 percent of the nation’s population growth. North Carolina saw net growth of about 1.5 million people, Johnson said.

Seventy-one percent of that growth settled in the urban crescent that starts in Johnson County, arcs through the Triangle and Triad and ends in, as he said, “the great state of Mecklenburg.” But some areas have seen a drop in population, and the death rate exceeds the birth rate in 33 counties.

‘Browning’ of N.C.

With the growth has come a fundamental shift in the country’s racial composition, Johnson said. The foreign-born population rose from 14.1 million in 1980 to 37.3 million in 2007.

North Carolina’s foreign-born population went from 78,358 to 623,242, many of whom are Hispanic — the “browning” of North Carolina

Nationwide, about 11.2 million immigrants are in the country illegally.

“And we better be glad we’ve got every one of them,” Johnson said. Some 83 percent of the net growth in population was driven by people of color, he said.

“We moved from being a black and white state to a state that has everything.”

The state’s population grew by 1.5 million people in 2000-2010, some 61.2 percent of whom were non-white. Rowan County’s population grew by 8,088, 98 percent of whom were non-white (65.2 percent Hispanic).

Marriage and births

The rate at which people married someone of a different race or ethnic group more than doubled from 1980 to 2008, Johnson said.

And the Hispanic population is growing fast. The median age for Hispanic women is low — 22 — compared to 35 for black women and 41 for white women. That difference is reflected in fertility rates — 101 births per 1,000 Hispanic women, 58 per 1,000 black women and 49 per 1,000 white women.

“This is biology, not sociology,” Johnson said. And the shift is seen first in the school systems. The number of whites in N.C. public schools declined slightly from 2000 to 2009, but overall enrollment still grew by nearly 160,000, including 96,373 Hispanic students.

Silver tsunami

As the younger generation changes in composition, the 80-million-strong baby boomer generation is entering retirement — a silver tsunami, he said.

The average 65-year-old is going to live 18.7 more years, which poses problems for Social Security, Johnson said. Boomers have paid in, but there’s no guarantee they’ll get anything out unless the population behind them is working and paying into the system.

But the number of people ages 25-44 is declining — down 3.4 percent nationwide, 9.4 percent in Rowan. Johnson said the kind of chronic illnesses older generations contracted in their 50s, 60s and 70s have become common in the younger group.

“Only about half of that population work. And so we are trying to build a system of sustaining Social Security in our life on a population where you have what is called ‘truncated productivity.’ They’re either disabled early in life or they die early.”

Having more people who don’t work — because they’re too old, too young, or disabled — than people who do work is a dependency problem, Johnson said, and about 20 percent of the state’s counties are in that situation. Rowan’s dependency rate is slightly lower, with 70-99 dependents per 100 workers, while Cabarrus and Mecklenburg have fewer than 60 dependents per 100 workers.

Meanwhile, a growing number of digital-age kids are being raised by rotary-dial grandmas, he said. And women are making great strides in the workplace partly because men are doing so poorly. The number of working-age men not working has tripled since 1969; reasons include mismatched skills, disability and incarceration.

The culminating effect of all these demographics is a racial generation gap in some areas. Counties sprinkled primarily across the South and Southwest have a predominantly white voting-age population, while the majority of school children are non-white. “What kind of support for public education are you going to get there?” Johnson asked.

Where the majorities of voters and school children are nonwhite, the schools lack resources. In the rest of the country, minority children often are isolated in under-resourced schools or in non-academic-prep classes in good schools.

The new majority of kids are between a rock and a hard place, Johnson said.

“We cannot sustain that. We cannot be competitive. We cannot thrive and prosper in the years ahead. ... That’s the 20-ton gorilla in the room.”

The solution, he said, is education — an education that helps young people develop analytical reasoning, entrepreneurial acumen and the agility and flexibility to adjust to the changes ahead.

People need to give up the “foolishness” of talking about who they don’t want in the country, and wake up and smell the coffee, he said. “Be embracing.”

The luncheon was sponsored by Duke Energy, the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, RowanWorks, Charlotte Regional Partnership and Centralina Workforce Development.

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