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the daily review, wed., apr. 28

Joel Kotkin

The narrative of American decline is seductive, particularly to Canadians, who tend to regard the behemoth to the south with a mix of admiration, envy and resentment.

In the 1970s the threat to American economic pre-eminence came in the form of a unified European market. Then it was assumed to be only a matter of time until Japan, with its superior work ethic, soared past a complacent America. Today it's taken for granted that China and India, the robust engines of Asian growth, will by mid-century surpass the U.S. in wealth and influence.

Joel Kotkin believes none of it. The American geographer, a distinguished fellow at Chapman University in Califonia, is markedly more optimistic about America's prospects. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that if demography is destiny, America has much to look forward to.

In an opening chapter that is impressive for its breadth and fluency, Kotkin writes that, because of its unique demographic trajectory, the U.S. "should emerge by mid-century as the most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history."

As the book's title suggests, projections show that the U.S. will add 100 million citizens in the next 40 years, taking its population from 300 to 400 million. Much of that growth will be driven by its improbably high birth-rate, 2.05 children per adult female (Canada's rate is 1.58 and China's is 1.79). That's above the replacement rate, making the U.S. an anomaly among developed countries, where birth rates are in long-term decline.

The U.S. is also the top destination for immigrants from around the world. According to UN estimates, 2 million people move to developed countries every year, and half of them move to the U.S. In 2005 the U.S. swore in more new citizens than the next nine countries combined. Only Canada and Australia receive a higher proportion of skilled immigrants.

All those additional citizens will create an enormous demographic dividend, Kotkin argues. The U.S. will have a population that's younger and more dynamic than its rivals, and one whose politics will reflect a concern for the future. About one in five Americans will be over 65 in 2030, compared to one in four Canadians. Countries with a high proportion of citizens over 65, which is where Canada is heading in the next 20 years, tend to pay less attention to long term investments such as education, he says.

Kotkin, who also writes a column for Forbes magazine, spends a great deal of the book looking at where all these new Americans are going to live. To the dismay of Jane Jacobs devotees, they're going to the suburbs. Over the last 20 years, most of the growth in the U.S. has been in the suburbs that surround the burgeoning cities of the south and west, places such as Houston, Texas and Phoenix that followed the Los Angeles sprawl model of urban planning.

The sprawl will get smarter, Kotkin writes, with fuel efficient cars and better planned neighbourhoods, but it's pie in the sky to assume that Americans will turn away from the automobile. Barely 2 per cent of the U.S. uses mass transit on a daily basis. People also want to live close to work, and increasingly jobs are in the suburbs. According to one study Kotkin cites, only about one in five jobs is located within 5 kilometres of the city centre.

Kotkin also describes, somewhat less convincingly, the coming decades as the dawn of post-ethnic America, a "race of races." Some time around 2050 non-Hispanic whites will become a minority in the U.S., but the trend will be to blended ethnicities, he writes. In California and Nevada, mixed marriage rates are now at 13 per cent. That's likely to rise, he argues, because polls show the millennial generation approve overwhelmingly of mixed dating.

It can all seem a tad too optimistic. Kotkin admits that Americans are unlikely to change their environmentally foolish suburban lifestyles, yet somehow that will be managed by "smarter sprawl." A country with centuries of racial conflict will make a smooth transition to being a race of races. The birth rate will remain high because America is more religious than other nations. The financial collapse of 2008 will be overcome and "new investment vehicles will emerge." Is this more than American triumphalism?

We won't know for another 40 years. But when it comes to the future, the field tends to be dominated by those who preach doom and gloom. Kotkin provides a well-argued, well-researched and refreshingly calm perspective.

Joe Friesen is the demographics reporter for The Globe and Mail.