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Baby Boomers’ Impact on Elections

They hold tremendous influence -- more than half the voting-age population is now over 45 -- but baby boomers and their role at the polls are a bit hard to pin down.

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About a year ago, the Center for Colorado’s Economic Future at the University of Denver sent a small shudder through the state Capitol. The center’s analysts, who’d been asked by the Legislature to delve into the fiscal sustainability of state government, declared that Colorado was speeding toward a brick wall.

“Twelve years from now,” they wrote, “Colorado will generate only enough sales, income and other general-purpose tax revenue to pay for the three largest programs in the General Fund -- public schools, health care and prisons.” In other words, if nothing changes, taxpayers’ money will be eaten up by the young, old and poor, as well as by housing for criminals. Everything else -- public higher education, courts, child welfare, roads, bridges and other basic state services -- will have to go begging.

Not surprisingly, the report set off a spirited debate about how the state should fund itself over the next decade. But it also set off a quieter, equally interesting exchange about an even touchier subject: how to avoid an intergenerational war over tight budgetary resources. It didn’t take much imagination to see a pitched battle shaping up between older residents and the state’s schoolchildren. “We hear politicians talk a lot about how the most important thing government can be doing is to help educate kids,” says Rich Mauro, senior policy analyst at the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG). That’s still true, he says, but policymakers and elected officials are more aware than ever of the challenges ahead for older populations and what they will mean for public policy and budgets.

This new political awareness is being driven partly by simple demographics. According to data compiled by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution, Colorado is one of a group of states that is seeing rapid growth at both ends of the age spectrum. Between 2000 and 2010, Nevada and Utah led the nation in the growth of their under-15 populations, at 27 and 25 percent, respectively. Colorado was seventh, at 12 percent growth. The national average was 1.6 percent. Meanwhile, the soon-to-be-senior population of those ages 55 to 64 -- in other words, the leading half of the baby boom -- grew 76 percent in Colorado, faster than in any other state except Alaska. Other Western states saw numbers that were only slightly lower: 69 percent in Utah, 68 percent in Idaho, and 66 percent in Nevada and Washington.

It’s not that “pre-seniors” are moving in unusual numbers to these states. Rather, they moved there in their 30s and 40s and are now aging in place, as are most people in the over-65 cohort. In fact, in every corner of the country, in fast-growing and slow-growing states alike, those older than 65 and those approaching it are coming to represent a larger share of the population simply by staying put. “The migration aspect of population change in the elderly is relatively small,” says Frey. “The bigger issue is where soon-to-be-old people are ready to age in place -- and that’s everywhere.”

This plain demographic fact has an obvious political result. More than half the nation’s voting-age population is now over 45 -- the first time that’s ever happened. As the immense bulge of the baby boom ages, politics in every state, county, city and town will reflect its influence. Yet what’s most interesting about this is that no one really knows how.

Given how thoroughly scrutinized, analyzed, dissected and judged the baby boom has been since 3.4 million of its members were born in 1946 -- compared to the 2.8 million babies of 1945 -- one would think it would be easy to predict how they’ll behave politically as they age. But it’s never been an easy generation to pigeonhole. Its leading edge started coming of political age around the time of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and its tail around Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the Pew Research Center noted last year in a report profiling the politics of different generations, boomers as a whole wanted little to do with the Republican Party, but by the 1980s that changed significantly. To make things even more complicated, there is a political difference between the first half of the baby boom and the second. “Older boomers, who cast their first ballots in the Nixon elections of 1968 and 1972, have voted more Democratic than have younger boomers who came of age under Ford, Carter and Reagan,” the report commented.

And it’s not just that the coming wave of older Americans is all over the map in partisan terms. “Really, the senior vote is something of a myth,” says Frederick Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, And America’s Future. “It breaks apart by education, class, ethnicity and family structure. And among pre-seniors, you’ve got elite boomers who got good degrees, bought into globalization and were able to adjust to a changing economy, versus the white working class, which is mostly boomers who have been completely dislocated by cheap immigrant labor and their jobs sent overseas. In numbers, the senior and pre-senior bloc is a sleeping giant, but the question is will it awaken and mobilize?”

It is crucial, says demographer Neil Howe [Read “What Makes the Boomers the Boomers?”], not to assume that aging boomers will act like the generations before them. “People assume that age-bracketed behavior doesn’t change,” he says. “They remember the efficacy of the senior lobby back in its glory days -- the ‘greedy geezer’ days -- and project it onto the boomers’ numbers and what they get is that the boomers will suck all the resources out of our system.” But that assumes, he argues, that aging boomers will know what they want and go after it effectively. “What have they ever done in an organized fashion, collectively, on behalf of their own generation?” he asks. “Boomers are excellent at rhetorical wars over values, but I’ve never seen them effectively organize.”

There is no shortage of potential flash points that could see state and local voters polarize along age-related lines. Taxation, schools, long-term care, Medicaid, urban design, transportation -- all carry the potential for conflict. Even ethnicity could be a sensitive topic. Pew’s research suggests that boomers are generally less tolerant of the increasingly diverse, multi-ethnic character of the U.S. than the cohorts that follow them -- though they are more accepting than their elders. Likewise, as controversy grows in states like California over pensions for public workers, it’s hard not to notice that the Golden State boomers who are now retiring are majority white, while the younger taxpayers called on to support them are not.

But there is another possible scenario. Aging in place means that people are growing old in communities they’re familiar with and that are familiar with them. Moreover, says Howe, “We know that boomers are more engaged with their families than their parents were, and they work cross-generationally with their families.” The same may well be true of their larger communities. Nina Glasgow and David Brown, sociologists at Cornell University, have found that older adults who migrate to new rural communities for retirement often plunge into community life, starting libraries, rejuvenating YMCAs and raising funds for nonprofits and hospitals. A plethora of civic organizations from Habitat for Humanity to the Experience Corps, which uses volunteers older than 55 to tutor and mentor public school students, often in inner-city schools, have found a rich source of help among aging Americans of every class, race and ethnicity.

“Much more is made of the potential for intergenerational warfare than there is evidence for,” says Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor who directs the Center on Longevity at Stanford University. “We can surely avoid it, if we provide roles for people to remain engaged not just with their own families, but with their communities.”

That is precisely the thinking taking place in Colorado, says DRCOG’s Mauro. Advocates both for seniors and for kids and education have been meeting regularly to talk about ways of avoiding conflict. “We want to make sure that we can be on the same page on these things,” he says. “I go to meetings with senior advocates where they say, ‘We need to be sure money won’t be taken away from kids, because I’ve got grandkids and their education matters.’”

At the same time, advocates for older Coloradans have stepped up their argument for shifting the state’s spending priorities toward in-home and community services -- services that will allow seniors to avoid expensive hospitals and institutions, sidestep having to spend themselves into poverty in order to qualify for Medicaid, and remain in their communities. “We’re trying to argue that putting money into these community and in-home services would provide savings for other areas of the budget, with the added benefit that you’d be helping people grow old where they want to be,” Mauro says.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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