California could be home to 50 million people in 2049, and it will be a dramatically different state, beginning this summer, when Latinos will catch up to whites on their way toward becoming the largest group in a diverse population.

By 2030, Latinos will be the state's largest workforce and three decades later will be close to a majority of the population, according to new state projections.

The changes have profound implications for California, redefining the Golden State in everything from the workforce to education and to politics.

Nearly 39 percent of the population today -- the same as whites -- Latinos will comprise 48 percent by 2060, according to the projections released Thursday by the state Department of Finance.

"It's very empowering for Latinos to see this, and it's time to move ahead and take our place in jobs and leadership positions," said Redwood City Mayor Alicia Aguirre, the first Latina mayor of her city and one of three in San Mateo County, where Latinos are predicted to become the largest group by 2040.

"It presents an opportunity for all of us to integrate into schools, jobs, politics," she said.

Three decades ago, 19 percent of Californians were Latino.

Asian-Americans will also experience big gains, especially in Santa Clara County, where they will become the largest ethnic group by 2020, and in Alameda County, where they will surpass whites as the dominant group by 2030.


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If current ethnic voting preferences continue, the population shifts could further liberalize an already liberal state.

"The changes are already happening. California now has nine Latino House members, the most of any state," said Christopher Punongbayan, deputy director of the Asian Law Caucus.

"The trend toward civic engagement, the trend toward the state becoming more blue in areas that used to be red -- that's only going to continue," he said.

White Californians lost their majority status shortly before the turn of the century, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and the state is now so diverse that no one ethnic group will be the majority before 2060, which is as far as the forecasts reach. That leaves a state where everyone -- including whites -- is a minority.

The changes also raise challenges as today's largely youthful Latino population prepares to replace aging, mostly white baby boomers in the workforce.

How today's troubled, resource-starved California schools are preparing those Latino students -- who have higher dropout rates -- for the future economy concerns Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a political-science professor at UC Berkeley.

"It makes clear that the well-being of Latinos is important to the well-being of the future of the state," she said. "We can't have such a significant population that's not achieving or thriving and still have a healthy state."

About 38 million people live in the state now, and 50 million will be here by 2049.

Still, the 50 million milestone will come later than the same demographers previously predicted because immigration and birth declines slowed the state's historically rapid growth. Until the recent recession, the state Department of Finance had predicted 2032 -- 17 years earlier -- as the time when the state would cross 50 million.

"They were interpreting larger growth -- fertility was higher, migration was very strong," said Bill Schooling, the state's chief of demographic research.

The immigration law overhaul being debated in Congress this year is an unknown factor that could affect the state's growth and diversity, Punongbayan said. It could restrict or open up migration from certain regions of the world.

"California is one of the first places where Asian immigrants go," he said. "As the American economy rebounds, interest in coming to the country is also going to increase. Jobs are here; opportunities are here."

The Golden State's ongoing popularity as an immigration gateway ensures that it will remain one of the nation's youngest states for at least the next two decades, according to the demographers.

The new predictions were given to Gov. Jerry Brown before he unveiled his budget earlier this month and are important as government and businesses plan housing, hospitals, schools, power lines and water supplies, Schooling said.

Contact reporter Matt O'Brien at 510-293-2465 or Twitter.com/mattoyeah.

Online
See the state's population changes by county on an interactive map at www.mercurynews.com/extra.