The U.S. electorate is the oldest it’s ever been and will keep getting older for at least four more decades.
Researchers call it the “demographic transition.” Americans over 65 are the now the fastest-growing age group in the country. The U.S. Census projects that by 2035, the population past retirement age will outnumber the population under 18 for the first time in history. While younger, more diverse generations have captured the media narrative about U.S. politics, its defining feature in the future may be its oldest participants.
“As much as diversity is growing in the U.S., the baby boomer generation still has a lot of financial power, political power and consumer power,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There’s a lot of focus in the media on the younger generations, but in fact, the younger population is growing more slowly than seniors.”
America’s current demographic makeup, Frey said, is unprecedented. Due to rising longevity, falling birth rates and the sheer number of baby boomers (currently between 55 and 73 years old), today’s older Americans have held onto power longer than any previous generation. In 1950, as the boom began, just 8 percent of Americans were over 65; the United States had more people under 25 than over 45. By 2010, when the boomers began to retire, those numbers had flipped and the share of the population over retirement age had increased by 50 percent.
Their power goes beyond raw numbers. Older Americans are more likely to vote than millennials and Gen Xers, particularly in midterm and primary elections. They are three times more likely to donate to political campaigns. Plus, they are clustered in rural and sparsely populated states, giving them disproportionately large Senate and Electoral College representation. This partly explains why the average member of Congress is now 58.6 years old, roughly a decade older than they were in 1981 and two decades older than the population at large.
Without a dramatic increase in immigration or a sudden doubling of the birth rate, this is likely to be a permanent shift. The elderly population will continue to grow until at least 2026. By 2050, demographers expect the number of Americans over 65 to roughly triple and the number of Americans in their 20s to decline.
This trend has profound implications for every American institution, but perhaps none more so than politics itself. Older voters have unique characteristics and specific interests that transcend the Democratic-Republican divide. From their economic circumstances to their demographic makeup, the concerns of older voters are only going to become more prominent as the baby boom generation enters retirement.
This creates a paradox for the candidates vying for the presidential nomination in 2020 and beyond. Though the most high-profile policy ideas ― subsidized childcare, paid leave, universal health care ― address the concerns of younger generations, the election itself may be determined by voters unlikely to reap their benefits and wary of paying their costs.
“To a great extent, older voters are still setting the agenda,” said Andrea Campbell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist. “They’re incredibly important to both parties’ coalitions. Politicians remain reluctant to run afoul of older voters.”
And it’s likely to stay that way for a very long time.
A Widening Economic Gap
What makes older voters unique is not necessarily their partisan affiliations. Though they tend to skew Republican, the magnitude of their support has fluctuated over time. In the 2000 election, for example, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 and voters over 60 were almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Older voters preferred John McCain by 8 points in 2008, Mitt Romney by 12 points in 2012, and Trump by 7 points in 2016. In last year’s midterm elections, however, they voted for Republicans by a much narrower margin — 50 to 48.
What this means, Frey said, is that as older voters take up a larger proportion of the electorate, both parties will try to win them back by appealing to the circumstances and anxieties that set them apart from younger generations.
In practice, this will likely take two forms: economic and racial appeals.
Older voters have strikingly different wealth and income profiles than younger voters. Four out of five older families own homes, compared to just one in four younger families. Most own stocks and a large plurality are business owners. Nearly 1 in 9 older households are millionaires and, according to a 2015 study, are the only age group in America whose net worth has increased since 1989.
Politically speaking, this means older households have a profoundly different narrative of the U.S. economy than every other cohort. Gen Xers and millennials, who have seen their incomes stagnate and their living costs explode, are gravitating toward candidates who prioritize issues like student debt and income inequality. Older voters, by contrast, will be more likely to vote for candidates who promise to boost the stock market, lower taxes and push up property values.
The widening gap between the economic realities of older and younger voters could become an even more prominent feature of American politics. According to a 2018 study, the poorest Americans die an estimated 12.7 years earlier than the wealthiest Americans. This means that, over time, as the rich retire and the poor pass away, the government will be spending an increasing percentage of its Social Security and Medicare resources on its wealthiest population.
In the midst of increasing strain on government programs, America will have to make hard choices about taxation and distribution. According to Campbell, this will create a paradox between what the country needs and what its dominant voter group will accept.
Older Americans, she said, will need better and cheaper government services. Their stances on policy and their dominance of the electorate, however, will increase pressure to raise taxes on everyone but themselves ― i.e. the young and the poor.
“If you ask seniors if we should preserve Social Security and Medicare for their grandchildren, they say yes,” Campbell said. “But their presence in the electorate might prevent that.”
Increasing Appeals To Racial Anxieties
The largest gap between older and younger voters is on the issue of race. Nearly 80 percent of Americans over 65 are white, compared to 52 percent of Americans between 6 and 21. In a 2017 survey, 1 in 5 older respondents said they would oppose a member of their family marrying someone of another race, compared to just 1 in 20 millennial respondents.
This explains much of America’s present political situation and previews what it will look like in the future. Surveys consistently find that the racial concerns and anxieties of older generations veer significantly from those held by younger Americans. From the existence of prejudice against whites to the necessity of affirmative action, older voters score higher on measures of racial resentment and are more likely to be persuaded by explicit appeals to whiteness.
“Racial attitudes matter far more than economic evaluations,” said Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina. “The attitudes that people have about racial groups, including their own, matter for how they make sense of politics. Older voters are more likely to adopt a white racial identity, which means that racial and cultural resentments may remain more salient than other issues.”
It’s also worth noting, she said, that older voters are unlikely to change their beliefs over time. While voters preferences do indeed evolve, this process is slow and complex. Despite America’s rapidly changing attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, for example, only one in three older Americans support gay marriage, a relatively modest rise from one in five in 2000. Other research indicates that when voters’ beliefs do change with age, they tilt toward defending the status quo.
“Social change primarily happens because generations of people die,” Jardina said. It may sound appealing to think that younger generations could convince their parents and grandparents to be more progressive over time, but white millennials are remarkably similar to older whites in their racial attitudes and anxieties. Without huge increases in cross-cultural interactions, Jardina said, “we shouldn’t expect a major change in the attitudes that older voters have about race and politics.”
Frey, who is 71, gave a much more optimistic take on the political future of his generation. On both racial and economic appeals, he was convinced that baby boomers will turn out to be more flexible than the cohorts that preceded them.
“We’re in unpredictable political times,” he said. “The baby boom generation is the most educated ever to reach old age. They lived through the civil rights movement and put more women into the workforce than any previous generation. If anyone can adjust to changing times, it’s them.”