"You are the future."
It is something we hear at opening and closing ceremonies, at the launch of a new school year, and at graduation, often from a tenured member of an older generation. Some of the boldness has worn off over time as the statement has withered into a cliché. However, behind it is an important ideology, one that acknowledges an age-old cycle that transfers power and responsibility from the old to the young. Our elders and teachers ask us, “What kind of world will you make it?” with an urgency that demands we prepare ourselves, lest the reins be thrust prematurely into our hands.
But our generation is unlike the ones of the past. Statistics show that our childhoods will be protracted and that our potential for successful careers is distant, if not dim. As it turns out, political and social influence is concentrated in the hands of older adults like never before, and that imbalance in influence does not look like it is going to change anytime soon. People in our country are living 30 to 40 years longer than they did a century ago, and their ranks are swelling into what is likely to become the most active and voc al group in the electorate. Older adults make up a visible force on television, rallying behind Bill O’Reilly or occupying Wall Street; they make up an invisible force at the poll booth, voting at a higher rate than their younger counterparts and increasingly throwing their weight behind Republican candidates. As older adults play an ever more determinative role in shaping the policies that affect us, maybe we should turn the original question on its head. We should ask our elders: 20, 30, 40 years down the road, “What kind of world will you make it?” (Because I may still be ruling SimCity.)
Population demographics were not always shaped like a coffee filter: wide on top, thinning toward the bottom. During the 1600s, a person in Colonial America expect to live to be around 24 years old. This is jarring, when many of us will be nearly 24, if not older, when we graduate from higher education to start our “real lives.” The way we plan our education, career, and family life hinges upon expectations of longevity. Today, we can expect to live to be at least 80 years old, and that span is still increasing. By 2030, the over-65 demographic will represent almost a quarter of the population. Dr. Linda Fried, a geriatrician who is also the dean of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, puts it in more dramatic terms: “There are more older adults alive right now than in all of human history combined.” She adds with a wry grin, “Older adults are the only increasing natural resource in the world—the only one!”
The idea of older people as a resource, not a drain, has its historical precedent. For centuries, elders passed down the knowledge that has become our Core Curriculum. They occupied positions as oracles and poets, high priests and judges, revered matriarchs and patriarchs. But when the 1980s ushered in dire predictions for the fate of Social Security, the conversation about older adults adopted a new vocabulary that included ominous terms, such as “workforce crisis.” The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in its Dependency Ratio projects alarming numbers: While there is currently an average of 4.7 working-aged Americans to support a single retiree, by 2050, it is expected to fall to 2.3. How will we take care of them, when we can barely support ourselves? The question “What will you do with the world?” will be answered with “Try to take care of you.”
Highly politicized challenges to Social Security, like the one we pose implicitly by publishing a “dependency ratio,” are nothing new. Since the ’80s, when the population boom of the elderly was first noticeable, demographers have been wondering whether Social Security could be sustained in spite of the falling birthrate. On the bright side, they imagined, the falling birthrate would lead to improving conditions for children because there would be less competition for resources in the home. Unfortunately, this prediction did not materialize. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the president of the Population Association of America announced in 1984 that “exactly the opposite had occurred: conditions for children had, in fact, deteriorated while they improved dramatically for older Americans.” The CRS concluded that the aging population, rather than a boon, had become a threat to “intergenerational equity,” a term for the philosophical question of how to allocate resources along generational lines. Older adults, after all, are also in competition for their share of the federal budget. In recent years, this sector of the population has favored candidates who propose cuts in education spending. Dr. Fried points out what was once considered the success of modern medicine—that nearly half the world will be over sixty-five by 2050—has paradoxically come to be treated as a problem.
Why So Red?
If the over-65 demographic had singly determined the results of the 2008 election, John McCain would have beat Barack Obama by the rather wide margin of 53 to 45 percent. Every other age group favored Obama, particularly the youngest voters, those between the ages of 18 and 24. According to a June 2012 New York Times article (“Old vs. Young: the Generation Gap is Back”), “polls suggest that Mitt Romney will win a landslide among the over 65 crowd and that President Obama will do likewise among those under 40.” If older adults are to become nearly half of the voting population, it behooves us to examine the motivations behind their choices—specifically, why they are turning right, against the grain of the rest of the country.
In search of answers, I tracked down Columbia’s own Andrew Gelman, a professor of political science and statistics and director of the Applied Statistics Center. Professor Gelman co-authored Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way they Do, where he breaks down recent voting patterns in terms of geography and social status. When I asked him about the wave of older voters turning Republican, Gelman immediately responded, “You’re talking about older white people, right?” He continued, “Older white people are older on average than black people and Latinos.”
In many ways, racial diversity is a younger phenomenon, since immigrants coming from Asia and Central and South America are often young people in search of employment opportunities. Even as life expectancy increases as a whole, longer life still strongly correlates with income and education. As a result, there remains a discrepancy between the ages and life expectancies of white people and those of other races.
“Identity politics” is one way to account for older Americans who vote against education programs for young people. Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard professor of government, says, “Basically you are asking
a bunch of old retired rich white people to vote for school bonds that benefit immigrant Latino kids.” Far from envisioning school-aged kids as their own children and grandchildren, Hochschild argues that older people perceive younger people as part of an alien “other,” with whom they have no emotional bond. Gelman agrees with Hochschild, although in less polar terms. “I think there is something to this issue of universality,” he says, “that if social programs are perceived to be for people like us, it’s different from programs for other people.”
Older voters are aware of the changing race and age demographics in the country, and for some, these represent a frightening departure from what feels familiar.
Racial “other-ing” accounts for only a single contributing factor in a larger cultural shift. I spoke with Professor Robert Shapiro, the former chair of Columbia’s political science department, whose specialty is analyzing voter trends and gauging the direction of public opinion. “On the issues of gay rights and immigration,” he explains, “young people are being brought up in a different world than previous generations were.” One hardly needs a better example of millennials’ enthusiasm for gay rights than the attention Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe received for his open letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., denouncing him for his opposition to marriage equality and for his attempts to silence its supporters.
Popular icons from Kluwe, to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, to Lady Gaga have won our generation’s accolades for their gay rights advocacy. While advocates certainly exist among even the elderly, sexual and marital rights are no longer a top priority. As a demographic, older voters are not interested in “social issues,” in which they, largely, have no personal stake. “White older voters,” Shapiro says, “there, [political preference] has to do with personal interest and economic security issues kicking in.”
Environmental issues also have no hold on older voters. History professor Alan Brinkley explains how environmental politics has weakened in recent years, partly due to the indifference of older voters, who “don’t think it will make a difference to them in their lifetimes.”
Health care is, of course, the essential concern of the aging population. As a September 2009 US News article (“Obama and Democrats’ Senior Citizen Problem”) points out, “Seniors are more opposed to Obama’s health care ideas than any other age group.” Surely, this is an ironic twist considering that the elderly are the biggest beneficiaries of publicly funded health care. I ask Professor Gelman to explain this fact. “Back in 2000 and 2004,” he says, “even when something like 75 percent of Americans wanted health care reform, the least supportive groups were rich people and old people. One might be surprised by that, but it could make sense, because older people already have Medicare, so no need for more reform.” According to this explanation, older voters imagine that the bureaucratic gears could never turn so quickly as to deprive them of their own Medicare. However, they do not wish to share the privilege of excellent, nearly free coverage with younger generations, especially if it required them to pay more.
Gelman is careful to add that the phenomenon of seniors turning right is not so much an ideological shift or an affirmation of the actual Republican platform as much as it is a positive response to advertising. Traditionally, the Democratic Party has been known as the champion of the elderly, supporting, as it does now, a higher level of government support for retirees who cannot live on their pensions.
Democrats carried the majority of older adult votes from the Depression Era until the pivotal 1980 election, when they voted for Ronald Reagan over President Carter, with whom they were disenchanted. “Once you get a change,” says Gelman, “it can be self-reinforcing. You get a positive feedback loop, so if older people are voting more conservatively, that affects how the issues are pitched.” There is no intrinsic reason why older adults on Medicare would necessarily oppose public health care for the rest of the population: “It could, just as easily, have gone the other way—as in, older people benefit from Medicare, see its appeal, and would want it for everybody.” Through this lens, older adults are not avaricious, so much as they are confused.
Confusion reached a pinnacle when Arthur Laffer, 72, announced on CNN, “If you like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles, and you think they’re run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid, and health care done by the government.” No need to wait as Medicare and Medicaid have always been government programs. But the real punch line is that Laffer (of the “Laffer Curve”) once served as a top economic advisor to President Reagan. Older adults without a B.A. in economics from Yale are just as confused. And with older people making up more and more of the crowd at public fora, there is no shortage of material.
On YouTube, one can observe riotous behavior at town hall meetings, with elderly citizens storming in with posters advising officials to “Keep your goddamn government hands off my Medicare!” By no means would all older Americans partake in such a display. It is disturbing, however, that there would even exist a critical mass of protestors who do not understand that Medicare is funded by the government, which is to say, by the hard labor and taxes of working-aged people. Not exactly a thank-you note.
In the digital age, how do these Americans maintain their level of confusion? One of the answers Professor Shapiro suggested is “residential sorting and segregation.” He explains, “People tend to move to areas where there are like-minded people, where they are exposed to like-minded opinions.” Older adults have become experts at self-segregation, and they have become famous for their colonization of the sunshine state.
The dependency rate in Florida, for instance, far exceeds the rest of the nation. In several years, three workers, on nation-wide average, will be supporting a single retiree. In Florida, there will be only two. The growing older population is devastating Florida’s economy, which thirsts for young workers—mostly to care for the elderly. But the young people are not coming.
Instead, immigrants—often illegal immigrants— make up the majority of the labor force servicing the high-end retirement communities, which are structured, according to a chipper 68-year-old interviewed for a Huffington Post exposé, “like Disneyworld for adults.” Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to name a few, both live in areas—of Florida and Texas, respectively—whose demographics would classify them as geriatric theme parks. And no surprise: If we spent all our time at Disney World, we would probably get some loopy ideas, too.
Ben Hallman, who wrote the aforementioned Huffington Post article, visited several of these “Disneyworlds.” About one of the communities, Hallman writes, “Spend twenty-four hours in the Villages, and all the state’s problems feel like someone else’s problems.” One would imagine that even without social interaction, access to media sources would break down the wall with the outside world. But far from bursting the bubble, the ever-present television and Internet only reinforce the already formidable insularity. Professor Shapiro confirms, “That happens substantially in the environment of the mass media and new media: they hear what they want to hear and go to the websites they want to see.” Older adults, who are increasingly moving to this type of community, are undoubtedly using the Internet.
There is none of the quaintness typically ascribed to older people. Their residences, after all, are not sanctuaries for the sickly to convalesce, but rather, they are escapes for healthy 60- and 70-somethings. Withdrawing from life in a community with a complex socioeconomic, racial, and belief structure, however, does not signal a withdrawal from political life. Just the opposite: these healthy retirees have money to spend, time to spare, and the political motivation to protect their assets.
I ask Professor Gelman what a gerontocracy—a government by the old—would look like. He laughs, “It’s already happening!” Part of what guarantees older adults a disproportionate impact on elections, even with their startling numbers, is younger people’s choice not to vote. Often, we blame apathy or indolence for their low turnout. New Republic reporter Cheryl Russell writes, “Young adults do not vote because many are still—in a sense—children, without adult commitments or responsibilities. The data suggest that three factors consistently make a difference in voting rates: money, marriage, and homeownership. Those are the adult commitments that give people a stake in society.” Her critique is harsh, with its implication that young voters think they are children. As a result of their lack of responsibility, Russell implies, younger people willingly recuse themselves from political activity, or in other words, leave it for the grownups to handle.
Professor Gelman does not exactly agree, and he might even find Russell’s magical “three factors” more correlative than explanatory. “Older people vote at a higher rate than young people,” he says, “and that’s attributed to the difficulty of getting registered to vote and figuring out where to vote. When people move to a new place, voter turnout goes down a lot, so when people have been living somewhere for a while, they know where to vote.” In his opinion, young people do not vote because we are dislocated and pressed for time—not, thankfully, because we are child-like.
However, it is true that our view of childhood and adulthood, in terms of voting rights, has been in flux over the twentieth century. Until 1971, when the Supreme Court passed the 26th Amendment, the voting age in America was 21. The amendment came as a response to the Vietnam War protests; citizens 18 and older were being drafted to fight in a war they had no political power to oppose. Here, young people did have a “stake in society.” Could our flexibility with voting age push it even younger, to include precocious mid-teenagers? After all, few people in the public education system have the power to change it before graduation from high school. In all likelihood, there are some 15- and 16-year-olds who have a grip on basic political facts, who know, for instance, that Medicare and Medicaid are publicly-funded programs. Is there a logical reason, apart from our traditional respect for elders, not so much as to consider a voting age cut-off?
If, as Russell leads us to believe, younger voters imagine themselves to be children, at least part of the reason is that we have been artificially kept as children. This is a result of older adults’ decision not only to accumulate, but also to retain, the largest share of America’s wealth and jobs. According to a New York Times article, “The wealth gap between households headed by someone over 65 and those headed by someone under 35 is wider than at any point since the Federal Reserve Board began keeping consistent data.” Millennials, perhaps, don’t see why a “household” needs to be “headed” by anyone. And while it makes sense that older people, after all their years of hard work, should have more money than younger people just entering the workforce, what has changed is the degree.
Young people, we hear every day, are having trouble finding work. One of the factors that contributes to this difficulty is that older adults are not leaving their jobs, not making the necessary generational transfers. As Professor Shapiro explains, “The big hit the stock market took basically undercut people’s pensions, especially if they had a defined contribution plan. So retirement is being put off.” Even if workers were retiring at sixty-five, Professor Gelman adds, “It’s not clear what the replacement jobs would look like.” He describes how the job structure at Columbia is set up for professors not to retire. “I live in a Columbia apartment,” he says, “and they have a rule that if we retire, we have to leave our apartment within some couple of years and go to a smaller apartment. Maybe that’s okay because our kids would be all grown up, but still, you don’t like to get kicked out of where you’ve been living for thirty years.” On the one hand, older adults not retiring is gumming up the works, delaying young people’s entry into the job market. On the other hand, if they did retire, a young working population would need to support them. It seems like a no-win situation.
Dr. Fried would like to transform the no-win into a win-win situation, or as she puts it, “to rebalance our perceived costs and benefits.” Fried explains in a lecture, “The dominant perception is that we have aged into a deficit situation of high needs, high cost, and low contributions.” Of course, this “perception” is grounded in fact. But she proposes an interesting solution designed to help the elderly with issues like frailty, and, at the same time, benefit a younger generation. Central to her argument is the concept of “intergenerational transfers,” or the social exchanges between younger and older people. These transfers expose older people to younger people, allowing them to identify with a wider group, who, in turn, pass on knowledge and experience to their juniors. As elderly Americans started to favor moving to special facilities (as opposed to being cared for in the home), older and younger people have fewer occasions to meet. Reflecting on his own life, Professor Gelman says, “When I’ve had close interaction with people from minority groups, that has changed my views, in some sense. Much research has been done on the effects of walking down the street and having a social interaction.” Accordingly, Fried believes the solution lies in generational reintegration.
The view of older people as oracles or moral arbiters is based on the idea that our elders care for us and that they wish to pass down their holdings of power and knowledge. Sadly, this is no longer universally true: Professor Shapiro defines their political preference in terms of “self interest,” and whether older adults are confused or well-informed, their choices on the whole reveal an overwhelming desire to guard their assets. Yet younger people are still expected to sympathize with them?
It is easy to forget, when older people consistently advocate against our interests, how many of them have been victims of Hurricane Katrina or the foreclosure crisis, how many of them worked hard their whole lives only to die impoverished. And it is easy to become bitter. In one such feat of bitterness, columnist David Brooks wrote in a recent op-ed, “You could say that America is spending way too much on health care for the elderly and way too little on young families and investments in the future.” The implication here is that we should make Romney-style cuts on health care spending for the elderly, to which even the right- leaning Conference of Catholic Bishops objected, saying that the cuts would constitute cruelty. In his column, Brooks draws a false binary: A Survivor-themed scenario in which a single group makes it off the island. Looking to the future, Professor Shapiro says, “Realistically, it would have to be a world of higher taxes, not the policies the old want today. And if you want to play it out to its logical conclusion, if the birthrate continues to go down, the one solution would be more immigrants.” Reasonable policy changes, not reckless social cuts, are the way of the future.
Dr. Fried has devised an even more immediate solution in her organization, Experience Corps. Experience Corps provides a forum for older retired people who are still healthy to volunteer as mentors to local public school children. The interaction is a “win- win situation” in that it would provide exercise for older adults who struggle with frailty, and meaningful, guiding relationships to students in underserved areas. Admittedly, in her lecture on the trial stages of Experience Corps, the photos that she shows as part of her presentation are disappointing. Perhaps Dr. Fried did not notice that in each of them, a black senior was largely paired with a black student, or a white senior with a white student. On the whole, white faces were rare; there seemed to be only one Caucasian in an image of the volunteer corps—a young man in a suit and tie who appeared to be the administrator. Her program did not seem to reach the self-sequestering, “Disneyworld” segment of the population that is, arguably, the most influential. The program, however, is still new, and at least it appears to be moving forward in the right direction.