Seniors are no sleeping giant politically

Photo by Elien Dumon on Unsplash

Frederick R. Lynch wrote in The New York Times a story arguing that seniors are the “sleeping giant of American politics.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lynch cites statistics that young people, those under 30, constituted just 13% of the vote in the last midterm election, while those over 50 constituted 56% of the vote. So he urges politicians to pay more attention to seniors than to young people.

The problem is that his advice is the least surprising advice you would give any politician. Any politician worth their salt would tell you that seniors vote and young people don’t, and that is why you need to pay attention to seniors.

The result has been a political climate that focuses on short-term benefits for older people to the detriment of the long-term interests of the rest of our population. Why else would attacking Social Security be called the “third rail of American politics?” Lynch argues that politicians should focus on protecting Medicare while opposing an expansion of the system to cover younger people as well. Lynch is correct that seniors oppose this expansion, but the reason is disturbing: they got theirs, they don’t care about everyone else.

Similarly, how could we as a society accept climate change, or balooning national debt, if not for the fact that a disproportionate percentage of voters won’t be around to face the music, and that the ramifications of these policies will fall onto the backs of the younger people — who tend not to vote.

At the same time that a Republican President and Congress fell over themselves to give an expensive new Medicare prescription benefit to seniors, they were actually cutting assistance to young people seeking a college education. The high and rapidly rising cost of college has been shown to be largely a function of declining financial support from the government, and the result has been the unsustainable debt load imposed upon recent college graduates. Believe me, if young people voted at the same rate as seniors, there would be a lot more interest in addressing the student loan crisis. Under the current circumstances, this issue is a minor one at best.

Lynch was quite correct in stating that the 13% of the electorate that people under 30 represented in this recent election was a high water mark. He argues, then, that we should essentially ignore their needs to the benefit of seniors. This is the strategy that has been traditionally followed since seniors are such consistent voters. Indeed, it is expected that the electorate will be older on average than the population as a whole, especially in midterm elections. But in an environment where many races are decided by narrow margins, an unexpected increase in turnout by young people of even a small number can make the difference.

It is worth noting that I recently became a voter over 50. I certainly hope that Medicare and Social Security are not attacked. However, as a father and grandfather, I want to leave the world and our country in a good position for my children. I am concerned that our current policies do not accomplish that goal.

The interests of seniors and young people need not be in conflict. In fact, seniors need young people. Despite claims that Social Security is an insurance program that seniors invested into during their working career, the reality is that it is a cash program. With the movement of the baby boomers into retirement, and with people living so much longer than they did when Social Security and even Medicare were established, most of seniors’ lifetime receipts from these two government programs are beyond what they put into the program. As a result, people — in other words, younger people — who remain working must pay the additional cost of the Social Security and Medicare going to those seniors. And with the retirement of the baby boomers and subsequently lower birthrates, the number of people remaining working will be a smaller percentage of the total population. In other words, for each retired person, there will be fewer people putting funds into Social Security to pay for their benefits.

The culmination of this trend should give pause to older people, most of whom still have many years to live. If there are fewer people funding Social Security and Medicare, benefits will either have to be reduced or taxes increased. As the young people realize that they are working increasingly hard to support seniors in their retirement, and as they get older and start voting more regularly, which way do you think they will push the politicians of the future? Suddenly there will be a sizable constituency to reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits if it means more money left in the paychecks of the population still working.

I shudder to think that young people, as they get older and realize the mess seniors have left them, might not be so enthused about paying so much to support the seniors. My grandmother said that class warfare was her greatest fear. Now, I think a bigger fear should be inter-generational warfare. Instead of continuing to privilege seniors, as Lynch suggested, perhaps we should instead pursue a policy agenda that benefits everyone, young and old.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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