Demographics of the United States in 2006 Robert Siegel talks with William Frey, demographer and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. Frey talks about why the 300-millionth American is an important landmark in modern society.

Demographics of the United States in 2006

Demographics of the United States in 2006

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Robert Siegel talks with William Frey, demographer and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. Frey talks about why the 300-millionth American is an important landmark in modern society.


Joining me now to talk more about the country's makeup is William Frey, who's a demographer and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program.

Mr. WILLIAM FREY (Brookings Institution): Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Three hundred million people. Why does the milestone matter to you?

Mr. FREY: Well, first of all it's a big number and I think it emphasizes the way we're getting here. We're going back to our immigrant roots in a way in the sense that it's immigration and the children of immigrants who are causing a lot of the growth right now, which is a change from a lot of the past.

SIEGEL: And unless people take population for granted, we should say you could be in the situation of Russia where between declining population growth rates and emigration, it's not getting bigger.

Mr. FREY: Absolutely. We were very much distinct from a lot of the developed countries in the world in the sense that our future scenario here is for growth in our labor force, a growth in our child population. That's not the case for a lot of Europe. It's not the case for Japan. So I think we have a lot to be celebrative about on this occasion.

SIEGEL: Let's go back through some of the earlier milestones, two of them, and tell us about what it said about the country, say, when we reached 100 million people.

Mr. FREY: When we reached 100 million back in 1915 and, you know, I said now we're going back to our melting pot roots. Back in 1915, we were a melting pot country. We were bringing a lot of people in from Italy and from Poland and from other countries in Eastern Europe.

It was a time when people were really getting this country together in a way. They were pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. It was a kind of a growing and an interesting time, although there were some backlash against theme immigrants in the United States back then. But it was a sort of staging time for our shoot out of the gate, as it were, as a major country.

SIEGEL: When you say that we're getting back to our melting pot roots, we could contrast the situation with 1967, I believe it was, when we broke 200 million. At that time, you could have grown up in a country that was overwhelmingly people - native born Americans.

Mr. FREY: Yes. 1967 was a period where we were quite inward looking. We were prosperous. We were middle class. We were white. We were suburban. We were baby boomer hippies. But we were not very international. We have about the lowest percentage foreign born as we ever had in this country, and so in a way quite distinct from our melting pot heritage in 1967.

SIEGEL: The next milestone, I gather, that people simply project where we are now and assume continues similar trends, they say by the year 2043, we would hit, I guess, 400 million people. What do you think be like as a country at that point?

Mr. FREY: One of the things I think will be interesting is that we'll be much more of an international country. Much more in the sense that our people will be citizens of the world, not only because we will have been bringing them in as children of immigrants for many decades, but also because it'll be much more of a wired generation.

You know, when you look at these young children walking around with their iPods and their Blackberries talking with each other, these are gonna be the corporate presidents then. These are gonna be the leaders. And they're gonna communicate in a very different way. It'll be an exciting time.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, as we surge past 300 million and contemplate another few decades before we reach a population of 400 million, it's hard to imagine there'll be a stretch of green anywhere between one mall and the next.

Mr. FREY: Yes, it's a country that's going to watch out for the way we plan our growth, there's no question about that. But I think when we look ahead, even though we're going to growing about only one percent a year, that growth, if it's tied to continued consumerism, could be a problem. So I think this is a warning bell as well as something to celebrate. This 300 millionth American will make us look a little bit more prudently about how we plan our growth in the next several decades.

SIEGEL: Now as a serious demographer and one who obviously works with statistics, what would you say is the margin of error surrounding the figure that tomorrow around 7:30 in the morning, the population of the U.S. should break 300 million?

Mr. FREY: Actually 7:46, but -

SIEGEL: 7:46, excuse me.

Mr. FREY: I think it's pretty wide. You know, it's not like they're counting everybody that comes across the border or who's being born in different hospitals around the country. You know, I would say sometime this week or even this month might be within the realm of real counting that person, but I think it's close enough and, you know, we might as well pick a time and be precise about it so we have a place and time to celebrate.

SIEGEL: But in truth, we could be there already, obviously, and -

Mr. FREY: Oh, we absolutely could be there already, and so this may be, you know, past celebration for something that's already occurred.

SIEGEL: That's demographer William Frey, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FREY: Oh, I enjoyed talking with you.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Three Hundred Million? Depends on Who You Ask

The population of the United States is expected to reach 300 million on Tuesday at 7:46 a.m. EST. Census Bureau hide caption

toggle caption
Census Bureau

Listen to a sample of population predictions from people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Audio for this story is unavailable.

The world population was 3.5 billion in 1967, the year the 200th million American was born. Today, there are 6.5 billion people in the world. Corbis hide caption

toggle caption

At some point on Tuesday morning, the population of the United States will hit 300 million people. The estimate is based on U.S. Census data: a birth every seven seconds, a death every 13 seconds and a new immigrant arriving every 31 seconds.

But if you didn't know these demographic statistics, calculating the U.S. population isn't so easy. The last major population milestone -- 200 million -- occured in 1967, and the topic is rarely discussed unless a milestone is about to occur.

On Friday, we interviewed 80 people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., right near the Smithsonian Institution. They were asked one question: What's the current population of the United States?

The 80 people surveyed come from all over the country and range in age from 4 to 78. Six people were from England, Australia, and Venezuela.

The answers we received for the U.S. population size ranged from 17,000 to 20 billion. Though roughly 1 out of 4 surveyed knew the population was about to hit 300 million, 1 in 8 said that they had absolutely no idea how many people were living here.

Others guessed. One woman questioned whether the 300 million includes both legal citizens and illegal immigrants. (It does.) A woman and her children extrapolated the population using the number of citizens of California as a guide. Some people said that the population was in the low millions, based on where they were from. Others thought billions.

Related NPR Stories