AARP: The Magazine

September & October, 2004


Wake-Up Call

By Peter Keating

Okay, maybe the Boomer Generation didn't change the world the way we once thought it would. But as our exclusive survey reveals, this sleeping giant is now rousing itself to rock American politics like never before.

When they first came of age, it appeared certain that baby boomers were destined to change American politics forever. The long-haired teens who took to the streets to fight for civil rights and to protest the Vietnam War also won the right for 18-year-olds to vote starting in 1972. Many political veterans at the time predicted seismic upheavals in the years to follow, as the kids matured into activist adults.

As things turned out, boomers have transformed our culture and our economy, influencing everything from the beverages we drink to the television shows we watch to the medical procedures we undergo, but not so much our politics. Their elders, whom we revere as The Greatest Generation for their grit and heroism during the Great Depression and World War II, have been steadfastly engaged in setting the terms of public discourse and purpose. Meanwhile, materialism, an entrepreneurial bent—and a longstanding distrust of big government—have led the boomers away from mass action.

Until now.

Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers are inexorably advancing in years, swelling the ranks of older Americans. In 2000, people 65 and older made up 12.4 percent of the nation. By 2030, they will surge to 20 percent. As they assume the role of our country's elders, boomers will mobilize to protect their interests, and their sheer numbers will allow them to exert an even more powerful influence upon American politics than the GI Generation does today. The boomer earthquake, in other words, is finally ready to rumble. Says pollster Terry Madonna, who heads the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: "Politically, boomers are becoming the new behemoth."

But what does this powerhouse generation want and expect from government? How different are its ambitions, beliefs, and allegiances from the generations exiting the scene and surrendering political power?

This past January, as the 2004 election season had just gotten underway, AARP and RoperASW conducted a survey of 1,804 Americans, split evenly between members of the GI Generation (ages 70 and older), the Silent Generation (ages 58 to 69), and the Baby Boomer Generation (ages 40 to 57). The landmark survey paints a striking picture of the ways that boomers are breaking with preceding generations on such bedrock issues as Social Security, Medicare, and retirement, as well as broader lifestyle and cultural matters. All of which should serve as a wake-up call to the major political parties and their candidates. While they busily slice and dice the electorate—Soccer Moms, NASCAR Dads, Exurbanites, and so forth—the nation's largest demographic bloc is rousing itself to act. A generation of voters up for grabs, boomers, for better or worse, are on a course to remake the American political landscape in the foreseeable future.

The Conflicted Conservative

Let's start with one of the biggest surprises of our survey: the veterans of Woodstock, free love, and be-ins, boomers are a heck of a lot more conservative than most people would think. On economic issues, for example, 51 percent describe themselves as conservative. Actually, this might have been anticipated, since it is a political axiom that voters become more conservative as they grow older. Indeed, 59 percent of those 70 and older describe themselves as "very" or "moderately" conservative on economic issues, as do 51 percent of the Silent Generation members.

On the flip side, a mere 15 percent of GIs, 16 percent of Silents, and, strikingly, only 20 percent of boomers call themselves "very" or "moderately" liberal on the same economic issues. And when you look at certain noneconomic issues, conservative views continue to hold sway across all three age groups surveyed, with a strong majority favoring the death penalty, school prayer, and "greatly increased military defense capabilities for the United States."

Yet boomers, generally comfortable with alternative lifestyles and diversity, are often socially quite liberal. Fifty-nine percent cite the Civil Rights Movement as a major influence on their views on government and politics, and 51 percent name the Women's Rights Movement. Let's look at some of the passionately held opinions of this age group:

My Way

How do you explain the almost schizophrenic quality of the boomer psyche? The key, says CNN political analyst William Schneider, is that boomers do not share their parents' generation's trust in government: "Their parents' experience was that the federal government saved the country from depression and the world from fascism. Boomers experienced a catastrophic foreign war in Vietnam, four failed presidencies, and Watergate. And many of them entered the labor market during the terrible economy of the '70s. To the extent that they have an ideology, it's vaguely libertarian."

But unlike the GIs and Silents, who asked what they could do for their country, boomers are finding more and more things that their country should do for them, without any reciprocation. Our poll shows that boomers are less likely than members of the GI Generation to believe that it is very important to serve in the military, pay taxes, or pay attention to political issues.

57% of the Boomer Generation support abortion rights. Only 43% of the GI Generation support abortion rights.

These findings sketch the Boomer Generation's liberation from the notions of duty that bound the GI and Silent generations—and a jettisoning of the concept of collective action. In what might best be described as the privatization of purpose, boomers—who grew up in an age of unparalleled affluence, opportunity for education, and social mobility, all of which fostered individual path-seeking—prefer to do it their way.

Where the issues are sure to hit the fan is over the matter of entitlements. "The political center of gravity will shift as baby boomers become increasingly self-interested in maintaining their benefits," says Henry Aaron, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. And maintaining these benefits may prove increasingly difficult as 77 million boomers become old enough to collect Social Security and there are fewer younger workers paying into the fund. According to the Social Security Trustees' projections, payroll revenues will be sufficient to pay all benefits until 2018. Beginning in 2018, however, payroll revenues will need to be supplemented by interest on the bonds the trusts hold. If the projections hold, 100 percent of benefits will be paid until 2042, when, unless Congress has taken some action, incoming revenues would only cover 70 percent of currently promised benefits.

Solving the inevitable entitlements squeeze won't be easy, given that nobody likes tax increases. But boomers don't want their benefits cut and they're increasingly unwilling to see them untethered from federal guarantees. By a slim majority, boomers oppose privatizing Social Security and Medicare. As they get older, that majority will likely become more pronounced. "Many people don't pay attention to Medicare or Social Security until they get closer to receiving benefits," says John Rother, director of policy and strategy for AARP. "Then their attitudes begin to change, and they become more supportive of the programs." (Americans 70 and older are overwhelmingly opposed to privatization of Social Security, 67 percent to 26 percent, and of Medicare, 62 percent to 29 percent.)

But Social Security and Medicare are only two examples of where boomers will upend the balance between obligations and entitlements. At the very moment in history when America is losing members of the generation that most fully understands sacrifice for the common good, boomers are taking the stage to demand their due. The potential downside of a maturing baby boom is clear: as boomers replace GIs as the dominant electoral demographic, the politics of selfishness could triumph.

The New Splinter Politics

One might predict that boomers' tolerance and respect for individual pursuits will lead to friction-free politics in the not-too-distant future. One might be wrong. Instead, with the GI Generation having lost its influence and the Silents, well, silent, some issues upon which there previously had been an essentially conservative consensus may become more divisive.

56% of boomers believe that the country needs a strong third party. 37% of GIs agree.

That's because boomer-style social liberalism is defined by fragmentation—politically, geographically, and even socially. Paralleling the rise of niche-interest groups in the culture at large—consider how three TV networks once decided what your viewing choices were and now there are hundreds of special-interest channels—Americans increasingly coalesce into clusters of citizens who think alike on subjects that matter most to them.

More splinter groups mean more groups, period. And more to argue about. Attitudes about and conflicts over gay marriage are a case in point. Boomers are more than twice as likely as GIs to support gay marriage (26 percent versus 11 percent). We're already looking at an increasing firestorm over an issue that a generation ago was a nonissue simply because it was unmentionable. In the future, divisiveness over gay marriage and gay rights in general could become even more heated as younger, even more accepting generations come of age.

This accelerating fragmentation into interest groups is already leading voters to focus increasingly more on issues than personalities. Boomers in our poll are almost evenly split on whether a candidate's personal qualities matter more to them than his or her positions on key issues, while GIs say personal qualities matter most, by a sizable margin of 62 percent to 25 percent. Simultaneously, new voting blocs and rivalries are evolving, sometimes along economic or gender lines. For example, boomers have gone much further than any previous generation in embracing equality of employment for women. But the rise of the career woman, along with an increasingly fluid definition of family roles, has created new cleavages. Married men supported George W. Bush over Al Gore by a margin of 58 percent to 38 percent in 2000, while unmarried women backed Gore over Bush by 63 percent to 32 percent; the gap between the two was the largest ever recorded.

In the years ahead, then, new issues will bubble to the top of the political cauldron. We can expect vigorous arguments over subjects that didn't even exist a generation or two ago, such as stem cell research—which 55 percent of boomers support, compared with just 44 percent of GIs. And we can expect boomer preoccupations to dominate public debate.

Softening the Blow

Fortunately, experts point to two trends that could ease the economic effects of the boomer ascendancy. One is immigration: people who enter the United States are generally young adults who work, pay taxes that support older Americans, and have children who will become taxpaying workers. And boomers' enthusiasm for diversity may enable the nation to adjust more easily in the coming decades to an inflow of new residents. Rather than respond to increasing immigration by railing against foreigners, boomers will sit with their grandkids to watch Dora the Explorer, the bilingual cartoon character who is now one of the most popular TV personalities in the United States among two- to five-year-olds. "If we continue to have immigrants, there will be a net payoff; we will not age that rapidly, and fine-tuning the [Social Security] system will be good enough," says Peter Lindert, professor of economics at the University of California at Davis and author of the influential book Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth Since the Eighteenth Century.

59% of boomers say the government should fund health care. But only 32% trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time.

The other mitigating factor is the innovative spirit of boomers themselves. They are, to generalize just a bit, a generation that wants it all: meaningful work, pleasurable play, and happy families, all at the same time and all on their own terms. And they will rewrite the rules to make that happen. Landon Jones, the former managing editor of Money and People magazines who popularized the term "baby boomer," said it best in an interview last year: "They will change whatever structure they are in. Whatever they enter, they will explode it."

Indeed, boomers have remade each life stage they have passed through. Business, as well as government, has had to pay attention to the choices they made. Boomer children created the market for classic toys first produced in the '50s and early '60s, such as Barbie dolls and Hula Hoops. Boomer teenagers were the first to consume music, clothes, and cosmetics made just for them. And, beginning in the 1970s, boomer women entered the workplace and transformed its basic rules within a generation.

Now boomers stand poised to rewrite the rules of aging and retirement. Wealthier and healthier than their predecessors, they will want to remain more active. More attached to their own work as a means toward individual fulfillment than GIs and Silents were, many will want to keep working; less dutiful to institutions, they will reject the notion that a caretaker state should fully subsidize their lives.

"Longevity allows you to reinvent yourself," says Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist who heads Age Wave, a consulting firm in San Francisco. "We are going to see people go back to school in their 70s, start a business in their 80s, take up a language at 90. Boomers will find a way to make old age cool. And they will demand changes in the way work is structured, so they can work four days a week or on a project basis or take a year off—so they can work and play in a new balance on their terms." If they successfully redefine retirement and remain in the workplace longer than their predecessors did, boomers will require fewer subsidies from government, keep paying taxes, and be more socially engaged than previous eldest generations. All of which would help soften the coming clashes over entitlements and social issues.

Can't Get No Satisfaction

In what could have ramifications across the board politically, our survey found significant pessimism about the overall direction the country is taking. Fifty-three percent of boomers say things "have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." Fifty-six percent of Silents and GIs agree with that assessment.

Some of this dissatisfaction rubs off on the two major parties. Boomers, according to our polls, are more likely than GIs or Silents to have switched parties because their own political views have changed, and a substantial 56 percent of them believe the country needs a strong third party. Such results would appear to indicate an increasing boomer unease with the inability of the political parties to craft forward-thinking platforms that address their needs.

But the major parties don't appear to be much interested in embracing new ideas and new coalitions, preferring instead to engage in escalating levels of partisan ruthlessness. "Since the advent of Newt Gingrich, ideological divisions have played a bigger role in politics," says AARP's John Rother. The result is an unhealthy, growing disconnect between the American people and their elected representatives—and missed opportunities to win the loyalty of a generation of voters still up for grabs.

On November 2, Americans will choose between two competing visions of our nation's future. Whoever wins will soon face the demands of a boomer-dominated electorate that expects more from its government than did preceding generations. Whether or not the winner succeeds in resolving the inevitable conflicts created by these demands will depend on whether he can lead this ambitious generation beyond selfishness toward citizenship.