PIPS Profile: Bill Frey

For this PIPS Profile, we sat down with Bill Frey, the Director of SSDAN, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, and a Research Professor at the Population Studies Center.


What do you do, what do you study, and why are you interested in it?

I’m what’s often called a social demographer. My background is in sociology with specialty in demography. So what that means is that I try and look at things from a demographic perspective across a whole range of areas. Over much of my career, I looked at migration patterns — not only movement across the country or immigration, but also within metropolitan areas: who’s moving to the city, who’s moving to the suburbs, who’s moving to different kinds of neighborhoods.

A demographic perspective lets you look at population change in terms of generations, in terms of social class, in terms of race, in terms of age. So even though there are these broad social changes going on, you look at them through this demographic lens and it gives you a better perspective of what’s going on.

A good example is the aging of the population. The baby boom, for a long time, was the biggest generation in the United States. As the baby boom started to age, you would see how other aspects of society would respond, whether it’s people who sell products, people who are running for office and trying to get votes, or the way both federal and local government money gets allocated. Now that baby boomers are moving to their senior years, people are worried about what it’s going to mean for the Social Security trust fund, or  what’s it going to mean for Medicare. Demography really changes things and changes how government has to react, how local communities have to react.

In my work at the Brookings Institution, I try to look at these kinds of broad changes. Last year, with the presidential election, I examined how different voting groups in the population might be likely to change the election one way or the other in different parts of the country. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that, in presidential elections, the older white population tends to vote Republican, and the younger minority population is increasingly voting Democratic.  This divide was especially sharp in the most recent election.

I am going to be looking at the millennial population over the next year to see how it’s going to start impacting population change in different parts of the country. Forty-four percent of millennials are racial minorities in the United States, so they are kind of a bridge generation between this older America and this more racially diverse America that’s coming along.

How I got into this, as I said, draws from the sociology courses I took in the field of demography in graduate school. Actually, even before I took sociology courses, I was a mathematics major in college, and I decided to use my mathematics background in a part of sociology which allowed me to do something interesting — that’s how I found demography.


What do you enjoy about your work?

I like to look at trends that nobody has ever discovered before. And the nice thing about when new data come out from the Census, or from the American Community Survey, is you really can pick things up that you’ve never seen before.

One example occurred when I looked at the black population from the 2010 Census as it was being released. In state after state after state, I noticed that the Black population was declining in major cities. This is the first time I had ever seen anything like this; and there was a similar rise in black populations in the suburbs

So this is an interesting finding. For years you would think the suburbs were mostly white and blacks resided primarily in cities ... Now there was this black flight to the suburbs. And you can only really appreciate that if you’re looking at these numbers, and it’s kind of exciting to be able to find something like that. So that’s what I try to look for when I look at some of this new data coming out — something that’s a new trend that will shape the way people think about solutions to problems in cities or suburbs or regions in the country.


What do you think is causing black migration to suburbs?

One way to look at it is that, for the first time, there are a couple of generations of blacks who are increasingly middle-class, who are professionals, who have college educations or more. As with many generations of whites for decades before, they want the American Dream, they want to live in a suburban community with good schools and a good tax base and all of that. Now this is evident for a significant part of the black population.

But that’s not the only reason. There is also a displacement of blacks in cities today as a lot of gentrification goes on. What happens is that blacks who are not as well off and are living in rental housing can easily be displaced, and then they are forced to move to other places. Some of that is to inner less well-off suburbs. Not all black migration to the suburbs is necessarily a “middle-class dream” kind of migration. Some of it is displacement.

I still think it is a step in the right direction. For the first time now, there are more blacks living in the suburbs than in cities in America’s major metropolitan areas, and that’s a notable benchmark.


What experiences have been most pivotal or formative in your career?

Well, certainly coming to the University of Michigan was a very important thing for me, to be at the Population Studies Center, where I came in 1981.

The nicest thing is, whatever field you’re in, if you can work at a place with a group of people who are supportive of what you’re doing, who have similar kinds of interests, and where there’s a big infrastructure in terms of computer support, library support, people really trying to help you do what you want to do. And, here, a great university like Michigan. I don’t think you could ask for anything better. So I think my career became much more productive and much more enjoyable when I began working at Michigan.


What skills do you find useful in your line of work?

I think over time you learn a lot of specific skills, like using certain kinds of computer software or statistical packages, and that sort of thing. But after a while, after looking at data in different ways for a long time, you get - I think of it as a craft rather than a skill – a sense of understanding of what is and isn’t important after you’ve looked at things over and over again.  Apart from general trend lines and patterns when sometimes see a blip, or something changing in a huge direction.   I think if you are able to recognize those kinds of shifts, that’s an important instinct you develop after being in the field for a long time.


What advice would you give to a college student looking to work in your field?

I think you need to be curious about changes going on around you, and trying to figure out how using a framework like demography can help you to understand what those changes are. So, I would say that if you are thinking of doing this as a career, either as a researcher or as a professor, you should go to a graduate program, irrespective of the discipline - Sociology, Economics, Geography, or Urban Planning - that has a strong demography program.

You should look at the description of their graduate program – who is teaching those demography courses, what kinds of demography courses are they teaching. There are  more applied demography programs, where you could prepare for work in the government or a consulting agency, and there are more academic demography programs, where you could prepare for teaching in a university. And focus on a particular field of demography, because not every demography program is equally strong in all of the different areas. It could be in studying the demography of developed countries, of developing countries, urbanization or migration, family issues, among many others. So you should think about what is your passion, and then look at a graduate program which has people that are teaching those demography courses, that are really strong in that area.


View some of Bill Frey's research here.