The Unemployed Elderly Are a Dangerous Political Force. Here’s Why.

The political war we expected between old and young is not the one we got.

My friend Phillip Longman turned 65 last month. Longtime readers of Phil’s astute political journalism will find some irony in this, because Phil first achieved recognition in the 1980s predicting that the generational divide would soon become America’s most salient political battleground. At the time, he was representing the younger generation; now he’s a card-carrying member of the older one (a circumstance he of course anticipated). In his influential 1985 Atlantic piece, “Justice Between Generations” (later expanded into a book, Born to Pay), Phil put it this way:

The challenge for members of the Baby Boom generation will be not how to meet the demands of their parents but how to provide for their own retirement without putting an impossible economic burden on their children. In the 1960s economists called into question the need for one generation to provide for the future well-being of its descendants. Today the more pertinent question is how much one generation can rightfully borrow from its descendants to subsidize its own consumption.

The answer turns out to be “quite a lot.” In the year that Longman published “Justice Between Generations,” the budget deficit was $212 billion, or about $525 billion in today’s dollars. By the end of this year, the budget deficit is expected to reach $3 trillion—six times what it was back in 1985—only now that’s playing as good news, not bad. That’s because countercyclical deficit spending is expected to yield the fastest economic growth since 1984, when the economy was recovering swiftly from what, at that time, was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan won a second term that year by declaring morning in America. (Something else that would surprise my 1985 self is that three successive surveys of American historians ranked the Gipper among the top 10 presidents in U.S. history.)

Phil figured in 1985 that by now America would have gotten serious about getting the deficit under control. It did for awhile around the turn of the 21st century, under President Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush, gleefully pumped the deficit back up. By 2003, the political columnist Ron Brownstein summed up George W. Bush’s policies this way:

Old question: What did you do in the [Iraq] war, Daddy?

New answer: I pocketed a large tax cut, honey.

[Pause.]

And then I passed the bill for the war on to you.

Two decades later, bolstered by a dubious new liberal doctrine called Modern Monetary Theory, America has decided, at least for a little while, to believe, with Dick Cheney, that deficits don’t matter. Ironically, MMT is embraced most fervently not by an older generation fighting to maintain its retirement benefits, but by a younger generation that’s understandably impatient to expand government in new directions yet doesn’t want to raise taxes on anybody who might conceivably vote Democratic. (See my earlier piece, “Walter Mondale, Martin Buber, and the 1984 convention.”)

For all that, Phil was right that a generational split would define American politics. It just didn’t turn out to be a fight over Medicare and Social Security benefits. It turned out to be a fight about everything else.

The first tangible evidence that Americans were dividing into warring generational tribes was the rise of the anti-government Tea Party a decade ago. To an extent that’s never been appreciated fully, the Tea Party was the paradoxical result of a triumphant welfare state. Its activists, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson documented in The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, skewed older and were vigorously opposed to Medicare and Social Security cuts. Unlike John Birch Society conservatives a generation earlier, Tea Partiers weren’t opposed to government spending on the elderly. They were just opposed to all other government spending (except on defense). The blessings of the welfare state freed them to dedicate their retirement to dismantling it for the undeserving, defined as everybody else.

The Tea Party begat Trumpism, an even more reactionary movement that skewed older and marked the decisive gerontocratic takeover of American politics. As I’ve argued elsewhere, gerontocracy is not merely a matter of America’s top leaders being older than the comically doddering Soviet Politburo circa 1982, though that’s certainly true and grows more true by the hour. (Our last two presidents were the oldest we’ve ever had; the average age of a U.S. senator exceeds 64.) More significantly, it’s a matter of voters getting older through the combined effect of an aging Baby Boom and the much higher turnout of elderly Americans. Phil Keisling, former secretary of state in Oregon and a leading vote-by-mail evangelist, estimates, based on recent Census numbers, that voters 65 and older made up nearly 26 percent of those who cast ballots in 2020, up from about 24 percent in 2016. If Trump hadn’t worked so energetically against his own interest to persuade the faithful not to vote by mail, but instead had encouraged them to do so, it isn’t inconceivable he’d have won.

Today the New York Times reports another generational fault line, between people in their 50s and older forced into early retirement, and younger workers so confident of their employability that they’re quitting their jobs in droves. The Times story quotes Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School for Social Research, saying we haven’t seen a faster wave of departures from the workforce since the Great Recession. Some of these people are affluent and retiring voluntarily on 401(k)s that fattened during the Covid lockdown, but most are being pushed out. According to Ghilarducci, among people with incomes at or below the national median, 55 percent of current retirements are involuntary. Boomers without a college degree are twice as likely to be retired as those who have one. The fight Phil Longman predicted was a fight over retirement. But the real fight turns out to be over not retiring—about elderly people’s struggles to remain in the workforce.

All this is happening in the context of a longer-term trend (more in tune with Phil’s 1985 projections) in which the share of Americans over 65 who still work is 50 percent higher than it was 20 years ago. But that only makes these new pressures to retire more jarring.

That’s bound to have political consequences, and to deepen political divisions between generations. According to a Fed survey cited by the Times, the probability of working past age 67 is about 33 percent, lower than it was as recently as last November. Yet people are living older and staying healthy and employable well past 67. Meanwhile, the government so despised by today’s Republicans—56 percent of whom are age 50 or older—just gets older and older. The phenomenon is hardly limited to Democrats, but at the moment Democrats control the White House (Joe Biden, 78), the House (Nancy Pelosi, 81), and the Senate (Chuck Schumer, a comparatively sprightly 70). The rules that apply to most aging workers do not seem to apply to these people, and for the involuntarily retired that’s liable to sting.

Fully 21 percent of all charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year concerned age discrimination. That’s a smaller proportion than those concerning race (33 percent) and sex (32 percent), but not so much smaller that it explains society’s indifference. Employment discrimination based on age is risky from a legal point of view, but it carries virtually no social sanction, and when liberals decry the workplace’s commitment to diversity they seldom include age. If older people skewed less conservative, perhaps we’d see more of a fuss.

Because older people do skew conservative, involuntary retirement will I think deepen the generational political divide whose emergence Phil predicted correctly, if not its eventual form. A logical response would be political pressure to end age discrimination. But that won’t likely happen, because that’s a liberal response, and today’s elderly aren’t liberal. Instead, I’d expect the inchoate conservative rage that drives Trumpism to intensify, with more ethnic scapegoating, including more overt racism, and more resentment of the liberal professional-class “cultural elite.” Having more elderly people with nothing to do but practice reactionary politics while they collect Social Security (all the while denying they’re on the dole) seems a very plausible future. Because the elderly already are so dominant within the electorate, and because demographic trends will make them more so, the current liberal moment could be over within the blink of an eye.

This piece originally appeared on Backbencher, the author’s Substack site. 

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.