By Juan Fernando Torres-Gil
By 2050, the United States will be both much older and majority-minority. The nexus of these two trends will lead to a shifting political landscape for aging, which may mean more competition based on age and ethnicity/race or coalitions of advocacy groups based on need.
The politics of aging is unique to the U.S. constitutional democracy, and is twofold: a subfield of gerontology and political science; and the study of how older voters express their preferences for public resources, and the extent to which America has based eligibility for major public benefits on age, rather than need.
How might the coming nexus of aging and diversity affect entitlement programs, the social safety net and geopolitical priorities? Will it give us intergenerational and interethnic tensions, or lead to new coalitions based on need rather than age, income and race?
Gerontology’s Political Blind Spot
Since the Depression, the politics of aging has been about the inordinate influence of older voters. This history (Binstock and Quadagno, 2001) chronicles how that economic calamity greatly impacted older people and children, creating a cadre of social movements and leaders (e.g., the Ham and Eggs Movement, the Upton Sinclair socialist solutions, Ethel Percy Andrus, Claude Pepper, AARP) calling for age-based benefits for older adults, which created pressure for the ultimate enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935.
Since that time, we have seen a proliferation of largely age-based public benefits and services—Social Security, Medicare, the Older Americans Act, tax preferences, advocacy, professional education and training programs—all to address the vulnerability of an aging population. The result: a dramatic decrease in older adult poverty and a foundation of health and retirement security for older persons.
Where has this politics of aging taken us some 80-plus years later? The 2016 presidential election was the first glaring indication of a politics of aging that has morphed into intergenerational and interethnic competition for national priorities and scarce public resources. As Rob Hudson (2018) so artfully called it in his Public Policy & Aging Report article, “Gerontology’s Political Blind Spot”, 2016 gave us a politics of aging that carried Donald Trump and a Republican Congress to victory. A majority of ages-45-and-older voters favored Trump; and, most tellingly, a wide swath of white voters, especially those ages 65 and older, favored him by almost two to one.
What does it mean that our natural constituency elected a president and Congress that are inimically opposed to advocate for all things beneficial for older persons? What does it mean that, in former President Barack Obama’s two national elections, he won every age group except those who were ages 65 and older?
In the previous politics of aging—1930 to 2008 (the advent of the Great Depression to the election of the nation’s first black president)—older adults were seen as “deserving” of public empathy and public largess. This period generally viewed older cohorts as a monolithic group with legitimate needs for health and medical care, retirement support and community-based systems of care. The social contract of that time, buttressed by the electoral clout of the older voter, was largely in sync with vulnerable and diverse elders, all benefiting from social insurance programs (Social Security and Medicare) and federal benefits and preferences (SSI, SSDI, Older Americans Act, tax benefits).
Tensions Mounting Over Age, Race
But the shifting political landscape now leads us perilously close to age- and race-based tensions and competition. The rhetoric and actions from the Trump Administration and the strong support it receives from its political base (white middle- and working-class groups, evangelicals, older whites) is a public narrative of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-minority statements and actions. The not-so-subtle political agenda of the Republican Party in power is to reduce, if not dismantle, the social welfare state and the legacy of the New Deal and New Frontier—the very entitlement programs that lie at the heart of a social safety net for all older persons, including white elders.
We now have a transcendent moment in the politics of aging in which we must face the contradictions, anomalies and awkwardness of an electorate operating on deep divisions of class, age, race, ethnicity and country of origin. What are we to make of the heated rhetoric and politics that disparage the groups that will form the next America and in time will come to dominate the electorate?
The year 2050 is that portentous time when the demographic muscle of minorities, particularly Latinos and Asians, as well as immigrants and refugees, will preempt the electoral clout of the older and white electorate (Torres-Gil and Angel, 2018). Due to fertility rates, the number of non-Hispanic whites in the United States (with a replacement level below 2.1) will decline, as Latinos, Asians, immigrants and refugees (with above 2.1 replacement levels) grow in numbers. And this does not account for those who are undocumented. And this may occur even sooner than expected. Recent Census Bureau data show that non-Hispanic whites could drop below 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2045 (Tavernise, 2018), with deaths now outnumbering births among white people.
How key growing immigrant groups like Latinos and Asians vote, and the extent to which they have ethnic voting consensus will influence public policies and national priorities. Latinos, in particular, have already become the nation’s largest ethnic group (at 18.1 percent), surpassing blacks (at 13.4 percent). This “sleeping giant” in some respects has yet to awaken, given its diversity (e.g., Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Central Americans) and its natural conservatism (e.g., espousal of family, church, community, work ethic and patriotism), which add diversity to the diversity. Current immigration politics and heated rhetoric may give them all common cause. Yet we must be mindful that legalized and native-born Latinos also believe (as does the older white electorate) that all should play by the rules and protect our borders.
Political Shifts, Uncertain Times
So where does this leave us? Which political landscape shifts will alter the politics of aging? Four factors will influence how the electorate responds to public policy and national priorities as it ages in a majority-minority society: the growing diversity of the United States and the interplay of immigration and refugee politics; the continued escalation of economic disparities that will impinge on aging baby boomers as more find themselves vulnerable; the hangover from destructive political rhetoric that creates great cleavages in the body politic; and the pending financial crisis facing the federal government as the annual federal deficits and accumulated federal debts (due in large part to the 2017 Republican tax reduction legislation) grow to unsustainable levels and imperil the legacy public benefits of the politics of aging.
We are entering into an uncertain, unpredictable, even exciting time in the next 20 to 30 years—when most of us will still be around to see the consequences of 2016 and the shifting political landscape that will become a politics of aging, diversity and immigration. Where it goes no one quite knows, but we must all begin to address the blind spots in how we as gerontologists have viewed our professional and disciplinary work.
Juan Fernando Torres-Gil, Ph.D., is professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October 2018 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.