By Juan Fernando Torres-Gil and Courtney Demko
As the United States moves through the twenty-first century, it faces challenges that will test its civic stability and its place in the world: concerns of terrorism and national security, worries about the environment and climate change, and the nation’s escalating economic inequalities and fiscal insolvency. Intertwined with these are unique demographic trends—for one, the aging of the population while it becomes a majority-minority society, which leads to a politics of aging and diversity that will have, in the coming decades, a profound impact on the nature of American society.
The doubling of the older population by 2029 (when all baby boomers will be ages 65 and older), coupled with the growth of younger ethnic, immigrant, and minority populations (which will become the majority by 2050, or sooner), will fundamentally alter America’s makeup. This nexus of aging and diversity will impact electoral politics and, as seen in 2016, potentially create tensions between older non-Hispanic white voters and emerging younger ethnic, immigrant, and minority voters.
This article addresses the implications of aging and diversity for a politics of aging facing a majority-minority population. While the ultimate consequences are yet to unfold, we suggest a scenario of potential coalitions based on social needs rather than aged-based preferences.
Does Demographic Destiny Equal Democracy?
The 2016 electoral politics did not auger an optimistic forecast for a nation becoming older and more diverse. The election of a populist demagogue who appeals to racial and ethnic biases and of a Republican Congress dedicated to eviscerating the social safety net give an impression that civil society is torn asunder. Another fear is that such deep divisions of a polarized electorate will lead us to a version of the 1920s—one based on nativism, xenophobia, individual responsibility, and freewheeling capitalism.
We suggest, however, that such a dire forecast need not come to pass. Our centuries-long history of immigration and social change has faced similar upheavals, albeit under different circumstances, which America has managed to ultimately overcome, and has led to the eventual acceptances of prior groups of discriminated immigrants (e.g., Eastern Europeans, the Irish, Japanese, and Chinese refugees) (Bayor, 2016).
Yet what makes this current century unique, is that our nation simultaneously is witnessing divisions based on age, ethnicity, race, and immigration status, raising new complexities for recreating a civil society based on diversity and resurrecting a social contract of equality and opportunity.
The Nexus of Aging and Diversity
What are the connections between aging and diversity, and how do they illuminate a politics of aging in a society that is becoming majority-minority?
At present, the U.S. electorate is primarily non-Hispanic white, especially people ages 50 and older, while people younger than age 50 are becoming diverse—a combination of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other immigrant and refugee groups, all of which have lower voting rates. Of course, in time, younger ethnic and minority groups will age and become a larger proportion of the older population, and the non-Hispanic white population will decrease.
Between 2014 and 2060, projections show the non-Hispanic white population of people ages 65 and older decreasing from 78 percent to 55 percent of the U.S. population; the Hispanic population of people ages 65 and older increasing from 8 percent to 22 percent; the Asian population of people ages 65 and older increasing from 4 percent to 9 percent; and the black population of people ages 65 and older increasing from 9 percent to 12 percent (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging, 2016).
Perhaps by 2060, the voting strength of older whites and that of a diverse population will be balanced. But for now, the effects of assimilation and acculturation of Asians, Hispanics, and first-generation immigrants and refugees will take time; and the fate of the large number of undocumented populations is yet to be settled. The nexus of aging and diversity means there are two competing trends complicating the politics of aging: older whites have an electoral advantage, and younger, ethnically diverse groups are less able to compete electorally.
Trumpian Politics in a Diverse Society
This nexus is quite visible. Hudson (2018a) describes in stark terms the “Trumpian politics” that gave us a political crucible that will determine the nature of intergenerational, interethnic, and interracial politics in the twenty-first century. The voting rates of the 2016 election solidified the conservative nature of those who voted: they were older (ages 45 and older) and were non-
Hispanic white. While voters ages 45 and older favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by strong margins, the most telling outcome was that white voters older than age 45 went for Trump by almost two to one over Clinton.
In some respects, 2016 marked a visible shift from a previous politics of aging to a new politics of aging and diversity—one in which older white voters displayed a willingness to express their electoral discomfort with diversity, minorities, and immigrants (legal and illegal). This phenomenon, however, had its first inklings in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, when Barack Obama won the votes of all age groups except people in the ages 65-and-older group and the ages 45-and-older group, respectively (Pew Research Center, 2012).
What to make of this new politics of aging and diversity? Does this shift in the political landscape portend greater tensions based on age, ethnicity, and race? Or might we find common ground? And does it matter, given that the Trump voter base is shrinking?
The Past Politics of Aging
For gerontologists and political scientists, or anyone interested in the political participation and behavior of older persons, the pre-2016 politics of aging was a positive narrative with a history extending back to the 1930s, when the extreme vulnerability of older persons led to populist movements promoting age-based policies, programs, and benefits (Campbell and
Binstock, 2011). From the Townsend Movement of the 1930s, with protests against poverty among older people, to the passage of public policies based on age (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, the Older Americans Act) and the rise of interest groups using the perceived clout of older voters to influence national policy (e.g., National Council of Senior Citizens, National Council on Aging, AARP), the view of older persons as influential voters provided support and protection of entitlement programs focused on older adults. This earlier period led to social insurance programs that also benefited younger people and spawned coalitions with like-minded social justice groups (e.g., low-income people, minorities, the disability community, veterans).
Yet there always were questions prior to 2008 and the election of the nation’s first black president: were older adults a monolithic voting bloc? Were they inherently progressive? Did they have a solid basis for coalitions with diverse groups (e.g., racial, LGBT, women, disabled)? Or were they, as Binstock (1995) suggested, an “electoral bluff” based on individual values and personal priorities? And were these programs too focused on age when, as Neugarten (1979) argued, they should be based on need?
The Politics of Aging and Diversity and Incipient Tensions
And so we come to 2008 and 2016. The 2008 and 2012 presidential elections showed that Obama was able to straddle the great national divides of income, race, geography, and ideology and win by healthy electoral margins, even in supposedly resistant midwestern and southeastern states. Yet, even with these transcendent elections, he was unable to gain a plurality of older voters—a voting base composed primarily of non-Hispanic white people, who were beginning to show concern about a rapidly diversifying society.
By 2016, those divisions were pronounced, as that presidential election demonstrated. Photos and videos of all-white Trump rallies with attendees shouting their support for building a wall to keep out those they viewed as criminals, terrorists, and gangs, and displaying nativist and racist polemics of xenophobia, set the stage for a new politics of aging and diversity. This new politics begs us to question to what extent the United States evidences intergenerational and inter-ethnic conflicts—something gerontologists, by and large, have downplayed.
Frey (2016) referred to this electoral politics of aging and diversity as “the demographic blowback that elected Donald Trump.” And as we prepare for the 2020 presidential election, we continue to see a scapegoating of immigrants, refugees, and “illegals” to appeal to this white, working-class voter base. This does not include all older white voters, but a sufficient number of these voters swayed the 2016 election. (Just 80,000 votes in three states shifted the Electoral College to Trump.) The “senior dissonance” described by Hudson (2018a), in not fully recognizing this age-ethnicity-race conundrum, raises profound questions of the future politics of aging in a nation that is becoming majority-minority.
The Emergence of Minorities, Immigrants, and Refugees
Population trends show conclusively that, by 2050, the United States will no longer be primarily Caucasian. As early as 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that, by 2042, ethnic and racial minorities would comprise a majority of the U.S. population. A combination of Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders will outnumber non-Hispanic whites, primarily due to higher birthrates among those groups (Roberts, 2008).
By 2055, the United States will have no racial or ethnic majority group (Pew Research Center, 2015). Whites will have declined from 62 percent of the population in 2015 to 48 percent; Hispanics will have become the largest ethnic-racial group, increasing from 18 percent to 23 percent; and the Asian population will have grown from 6 percent to 12 percent. Blacks will have a modest increase during that period (from 12 percent to 13 percent) (Pew Research Center, 2015). This is our demographic destiny. Even if walls along every U.S. border shut the door to all newcomers, birthrates among native-born immigrants and minorities will lead to a majority-minority society. But this does not paint the full factual picture.
Alongside the movement toward a majority-minority society is the telling fact that non-Hispanic whites are facing an accelerated decline, partly due to a reversal in life expectancy, as well as lower birthrates. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that their life expectancy was declining by 2015 (Bernstein, 2016), a decline primarily among working-class white Americans dying at faster rates than minority groups (Burke, 2017).
Why this dramatic turnaround with supposedly privileged white Americans? “Deaths of despair” was coined to address the implications of deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide impacting disproportionally white, working-class Americans with less than a college education. Couple this with other demographic riddles—that Hispanics have a higher life expectancy than whites and blacks, and that certain Asian groups (e.g., Japanese, Chinese, Korean) have life expectancies that are equal to those of Hispanics (Vega et. al., 2015)—and we come to a profound demographic Rubicon: The older, white working-class electorate who gave us the 2016 electoral outcomes will continue on an inexorable population decline and in the next twenty years will become the minority, compared with all other ethnic and racial groups combined. And if these groups continue the political participation behavior of voting more regularly as they age, we can assume that by 2050, if not earlier, the electorate will be majority-minority.
Interestingly, gerontologists continue to separate the topics of politics and age, minority aging, and cultural diversity. We in the field of aging have not symbiotically connected these topics to better understand the full implications of an aging society becoming majority-minority. Fortunately, others outside our field are doing this, and their work informs this article. Paul Taylor’s (2014) book, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, tells us that the demographic transformation facing the United States will lead to the changing face of America between 1960 and 2060, and that may lead to competition between younger diverse cohorts and older baby boomers.
William Frey’s (2015) book, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America, documents the rapid growth of minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asians, while we witness sharply diminished growth and the rapid aging of America’s white population. In his prescient book, Immigrants and Boomers, Dowell Myers (2007) looks to a time when whites are in the minority and the United States is majority-minority and concludes that the nation will need immigrants to address workforce shortages.
Using California as a case study, Myers surmised that immigrants were a net benefit to the state and crucial to its economic prosperity. Others, particularly Brownstein (2010, 2012, 2016), have drawn on this nexus of aging and diversity to raise the potential specter of a “cultural generation gap,” where the older white electorate and emerging young ethnic groups have diametrically different policy priorities at the national, state, and local levels: Older white voters support lower taxes, public safety, and protection of property values, while emerging young ethnic groups seek government support for education, infrastructure, and employment. Brownstein (2010) raises a troubling scenario, wherein these competing tensions, if not mitigated, would lead to political and social competition between older whites and younger Latinos.
Resentment Versus Coalitions
We as gerontologists must now enter the intellectual, policy, and political fray at the nexus of aging and diversity. What is most troubling about the current political rhetoric is that the very groups that will be the next America are the groups that bear the brunt of the xenophobic and nativist slogans. Public policy proposals to reduce refugee admissions, restrict public benefits (e.g., food stamps, public housing) to legal immigrants, endanger the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, and threaten to deport the Dreamers cannot help but create antipathy that may influence lifelong voting patterns.
We face the specter of a lifelong political backlash toward the current white electorate and reigning political elites (primarily white males) by the young, emerging populations of minorities and ethnic groups, undocumented populations, and any refugees and immigrants that can still enter the United States.
What if the next generation of voters and taxpayers—which will be largely composed of women, immigrants, minorities, and refugees—feels they have been wronged and are less willing to support an old-old population of primarily white elders, who will need higher taxes to sustain shrinking health and retirement benefits (e.g., unfunded pension liabilities, unsustainable Medicare and Medicaid costs, the drawdown of the Social Security Trust Funds)?
Who will pay for our mounting federal deficits and debts? What does it say that the long-term-care workforce is increasingly composed of immigrants, minorities, and women who, in most long-term-care facilities, are caring for older white and English-speaking females? And lastly, what are the implications if that young, diverse population is not receiving investments in their educational, training, and health needs because of the current aversion by a conservative Congress toward support for these crucial investments?
We don’t yet know. But we can predict a worst-case or best-case scenario. There could be continued intergenerational and interethnic- interracial strife. Or perhaps there could be seeds of a renewed social contract among coalitions of vulnerable populations based on racially, ethnically, and linguistically different groups, much as occurred during the social turmoil of reconstruction after the Civil War and coalitions during the Great Depression, when poor whites and poor minorities came together for populist causes (Bayor, 20l6).
We have some clues about these scenarios; and many of them, as alluded to by Myers, come from the California experience. (It should be noted, however, that California, while it is one useful model of aging and diversity, is unlike most other states in its size, history, and political experiences. Thus, its applicability to other U.S. regions may be limited.)
As far back as 1988, noted sociologist Hayes-Bautista and colleagues (1988) identified this cultural generation gap between the young, growing Latino population in California and the political influence of the older white electorate, and questioned whether this burden would lead to resentment by a Latino electorate having to pay increased taxes to support programs for older people. Of course, Latinos would also benefit from older adult and entitlement programs as they aged. But in the near future, might there be electoral tension because of competing policy priorities (e.g., Proposition 13, which lowered property taxes for largely white homeowners versus declining funding for public K–12 schools serving a majority-minority young population)?
This tension reached a critical milestone with efforts by a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1994 to pass Proposition 187, which would have denied all public, social, and health services to undocumented persons. The California electorate passed this measure, but it was ultimately rejected by the state’s Supreme Court. During this period (the 1980s and 1990s), however, there also were growing conflicts with the dramatic increase of Asians to the state and tensions about the extent to which bilingual education and affirmative action should continue. So where is California today?
California is now the fifth leading economy in the world, with a majority-minority population and with the nation’s largest number of older persons. The 2016 national election, while demonstrating national divisions based on age, ethnicity, and race, was starkly different from the 2016 California elections, with the state’s voters repealing the anti-bilingual measures, raising taxes to fund public schools and to increase services for the homeless, and reducing punitive laws that had incarcerated large segments of young Hispanic and black males.
Yet, politically, Latino and Asian voters remembered how in the 1980s and 1990s Republican candidates and politicians castigated them; and although these ethnic groups remain inherently conservative in their values (e.g., religion, patriotism, entrepreneurship, family), they now vote overwhelmingly Democratic as they become the majority and grow older. Today, there are no Republican statewide office holders, and the California Republican Party comes in third behind the state’s Democratic Party and Independents in voter registration.
The Future of a Majority-Minority Nation
We are in a period of social turmoil and conflicting political narratives (e.g., Are immigrants good or bad for U.S. society?; Will Latinos and Asians be separate enclaves or acculturate as have previous immigrant groups?); and the current phenomenon of an older white electorate displaying discomfort with diversity raises questions about the future of a majority-minority nation.
By 2029, all members of the baby boomer cohort will be ages 65 and older and moving into the old-old stage, when the need for health, long-term care, and retirement security becomes most pronounced. By that time, the largely diverse younger cohorts will ascend in age and in electoral influence. They already display greater tolerance and acceptance of diversity and inclusion. Thus, perhaps there is a positive outcome to the current political tensions based on race, ethnicity, age, and income. But for a period of time, we will continue to see political divisions. Working toward a framework that draws on analytical facts and data rather than on visceral and rhetorical views about immigrants and diversity is a role that gerontologists can play in the competing public narratives about the costs and benefits of diversity and the aging of a society becoming majority-minority.
We can work our way through this new politics of aging and diversity. But we must work through a revised public narrative that reminds all that the United States has always faced these tensions of immigration and integration and that while today these tensions add age, race, and ethnicity to the political equation, we can overcome them again. We must find a way to inject the truths of the immigration experience, which has always led to a more productive and integrated society throughout America’s history.
We must draw on empirical evidence and bring it into the public sphere as attempted by the 2016 report of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report reviewed the available data, polls, research reports, and policy studies and found that, while first-generation immigrants can be costlier to government in the short term, “subsequent generations are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors . . . contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population” (Shear and Nixon, 2018).
As scholars and policy analysts, we must also address “gerontology’s political blind spot” (Hudson, 2018b), and better understand the frustration of the new minority of non-Hispanic whites, and, by shedding any sense of politically correct thinking, understand and act upon their sincere concerns. Through this, perhaps we can bring into the scholarship of a politics of aging the new dynamics of a majority-minority society and begin to craft policy and political and intellectual guidance for the politics of aging in a nation becoming more diverse.
Juan Fernando Torres-Gil is a professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy at UCLA, in Los Angeles, director of UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging, and an adjunct professor of Gerontology at USC, in Los Angeles. Courtney Demko, M.S.W., is a doctoral student in the Social Welfare Department, with a specialization in Gerontology, at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. She currently serves as the assistant director for UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging.
This article is taken from the Winter 2019 Issue of Generations, which examines politics and aging. ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store.
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