As we struggle through the 2016 presidential campaign, its debates and politics raise intriguing and disturbing implications for where we aging baby boomers might be, attitudinally and ideologically, as we move through our last quarter of life.
Throughout my professional and academic career, I have been an advocate on behalf of senior citizens and those who will be older. I was fortunate early in my career to meet members of the Greatest Generation and the New Dealers of an era when a social contract meant supporting government to do well by its constituents and promoting social policies that benefit others. Individuals like Tish Sommers, (founder of the Older Women’s League), Maggie Kuhn and many others who lived through the Great Depression knew intuitively what it meant to have government in our lives. Later, I became a board member of AARP, advocating for all persons over 50 irrespective of partisanship, and being a bulwark in protecting the safety net (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) of the last century.
Now, we find ourselves in a conundrum. This current election cycle brings out a delicate irony: Older persons and voters over 65 have antipathy toward an African American President (having been the only age group voting against him) and the Affordable Care Act (due to fears of Medicare erosion). What to make of a senior citizen electorate that depends on Social Security and Medicare yet includes “Tea Party” members and people who support candidates such as businessman Donald Trump? Democrats (Judis, 2016) expect that the Republican party will be in decline as their own voting base (e.g., blacks, Hispanics, millennials, women) increases. Yet the reality is that senior citizens, once a dependable Democratic vote (Judis, 2016), have been moving toward the Republican Party and have been the most vociferous opponents of immigration reform.
I am not sure where this is all going, but I know that the United States is aging, and it will become a majority-minority nation within the next several decades. And we know that an age-race stratified electorate exists, whereby the more reliable over-50 voters are primarily white and English-speaking, and the under-50 population is composed of minorities, non-Hispanic whites, racial groups and immigrants. Ron Brownstein (2010) speaks eloquently about this phenomenon in his article, “The Gray and the Brown,” wherein he explains what it means to have older white voters determining the policy agenda, while young Hispanics and other ethnic and immigrant groups struggle to influence the electoral process.
Where does this leave me? First, I hope I will have an added 20 years of longevity. I truly want to see where all of this will lead. Second, I feel a deep responsibility to stay in the game and advocate for progressive (read: neoconservative, neoliberal) policies that account for this country’s penchant for individual freedoms but involve federal leadership for a robust social safety net.
What might this entail?
1) A renewed social contract: In my UCLA classes on aging policy, I explain to my students that over the last 80 years, the nation has been on a pendulum swing regarding government versus individual responsibility. The 1930s and the Great Depression gave to its citizens for the first time a social welfare system with a solid safety net of income security (e.g., Social Security), along with federal oversight of the country’s financial and public safety agencies (e.g., Federal Reserve, FTC, CDC). A measure of health security (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid) came along in the 1960s. Through the 1980s, there were ideological debates about devolving the safety net to local and state governments and putting more onus on individuals (e.g., defined contribution plans, lower taxation) to create their own safety nets. But at least through Reagan’s tenure, the federal safety net remained and even grew. With the election of President Carter and, ironically, with President Clinton, the era of big government was over (as he so eloquently stated in his first State of the Union address). Today, no one can doubt that individuals must rely more on themselves and that lower- and middle-income families are at the vagaries of shifting employment (e.g., part-time, transient), fewer savings, retirement insecurity, and higher costs for raising children (e.g., education debt). The one bright spot is the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expands coverage, primarily through Medicaid expansion. But even then, the jury is still out as to whether a reliance on a for-profit insurance sector for the ACA expansion, without national price controls over health costs and prescription drug costs, and with a mandate that goes against the grain of individual freedoms, will succeed.
As mentioned earlier, my family benefited from a viable social contract in the mid-century, which enabled me and my eight siblings to receive excellent low-cost education (K-12 and college.) And now, as we close in on our retirements, my siblings are enjoying government (e.g., state and higher education) defined benefit pensions—the types that are fast disappearing for younger cohorts. With levels of social and economic disparities not seen since the 1930s, we may be forced to confront a basic question in the next few years: Will the public and taxpayers adapt to the insecurities of this new era and accept a “new normal” of increased poverty and privation, or might we see a coming social consensus that the pendulum has swung too close to what we faced in the 1920s, before the advent of the New Deal and the Great Society?
2) Diversity and inclusion in a multicultural world: What is different about the 21st century in the United States, and what makes this new century unlike anything experienced in the last 250 years of our republic, are twin demographic trends that will, together, create a nexus of aging and diversity. Various thought leaders (Brownstein, 2010; Dowell Myers, 2007; Paul Taylor, 2014) have shouted (analytically) the warning that the United States is aging as it becomes a majority-minority nation. By 2029, all 78 million baby boomers will be age 65 or older; and by 2030, many states (e.g., California, New York, Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico) will find that non-Hispanic whites are the minority and that a combination of ethnic and racial groups (e.g., Hispanics, Asians, blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, refugees) are the majority. By 2050, the entire nation will have reached this milestone. The discomfort that is evident in regions like the Midwest and Southern states, with an influx of Latinos, Asians, and refugees in places that just 20 years ago were all white, is only the inexorable demographic wave that places like my home state is now experiencing. How we adapt and how we promote refugee resettlement, assimilation and acculturation to this brave new world of multiculturalism will say much about the viability of the civic culture in the latter part of this century. To the nation’s credit, we have always overcome xenophobia and nativism (witness the prejudice against Germans, Catholics, Irish, Italians, and Jews of earlier eras), but with the rapid growth of Asian and Pacific Islanders, Latinos from throughout the hemisphere, and more recent immigrants and refugees (e.g., Armenians, Persians, Middle Easterners, Africans) we will continue to test the bounds of tolerance and inclusion. The strident rhetoric of certain politicians in the 2016 presidential campaign opposing “illegal” immigrants and the registration of Muslims expresses unwarranted and potentially disruptive hostility towards these groups; but we can only hope that it is just another manifestation of the “know-nothing” fringe groups of the 19th century and will go away when cooler, more politically mature leadership holds sway.
With levels of social and economic disparities not seen since the 1930s, we may be forced to confront a basic question in the next few years: Will the public and taxpayers adapt to the insecurities of this new era and accept a “new normal” of increased poverty and privation, or might we see a coming social consensus that the pendulum has swung too close to what we faced in the 1920s, before the advent of the New Deal and the Great Society.
3) Global aging and an interconnected world—As the United States becomes older and more diverse, we are not alone. Many other parts of the world are experiencing rapid aging and decreasing fertility levels. And herein, the United States and my home state (viz., California) can provide useful lessons and best practices. While the European Union, China, Japan, and increasingly Latin America, confront a drop in birth replacement levels below 2.1 (which leads to declining populations), they also face increased longevity. Pro-natal policies have largely failed (with the possible exception of some Scandinavian countries), and thus these countries are forced to recruit foreign workers. Yet the travails of Europe, for example, and their inability to integrate North Africans, Muslims, and other foreign workers, reveal what happens when integration and acculturation do not proceed in tandem with immigration. The United States, and particularly, California, may be a bellwether of how to do this well and to benefit from aging and diversity.
My co-author, Aryun Hahm, as a Korean-American, represents the uniqueness of Los Angeles and Southern California as an extraordinarily diverse region; home to the largest group of immigrants outside their home countries (e.g., Samoans, Persians, Armenians, Mexicans, Central Americans, Japanese, and Koreans). Yet, the Korean population in Los Angeles underwent a traumatic experience that taught them the importance of interethnic alliances. The 1992 L.A. riots were, in part, a backlash by inner-city blacks to Korean small businesses operating in their neighborhoods, while Koreans themselves were not an organic part of their neighborhoods. This has since resulted in a revitalization of interethnic coalitions among Latinos, blacks, and Koreans, leading Los Angeles to enjoy a vibrant and economically successful Korean community and greater civic cohesion. Korea has the world’s lowest fertility level (1.1) and a deep commitment of cultural homogeneity (Kim & Torres-Gil, 2008). Given unsuccessful efforts to raise fertility rate, they are forced to recruit foreign workers to do the difficult work that young upwardly mobile Koreans resist. At the same time, they must also deal with a transition toward accepting interracial and mixed marriages and integrating the Vietnamese, Thais, Filipinos, and other foreign workers brought to their country. In my many trips to Korea, I have had the opportunity to meet the top government, academic, and military leaders and to use Los Angeles and the experience of Korean Americans as an example of how Korea can move toward a more multicultural society.
4) Mutual self-interest and a renewed public narrative: Herein is an opportunity for a renewed public narrative: Much of the rhetoric of this political season has been about fears and insecurity toward rapid demographic change, impatience with governing structures, and a sense that the “good ol’ days” of an America of the 1950s when the majority was white and middle-class, is disappearing due to the onslaught of foreigners. When one looks closely at the make-up of the Tea Party and Trump supporters, invariably one sees that they are white, older retirees from rural and suburban locations who are newly confronted with immigration, demographic change, and the after-effects of the 2008 recession. They have sincere reasons to feel that “playing by the rules” has not applied to these “illegals” or to refugees who appear to benefit from public and federal largess and a porous border. Yet, these very individuals who voice strong antipathy to federal agencies and government are the first to say, “Don’t mess with my Social Security and Medicare.” In fact, they are heavily dependent on these public benefits for a modicum of income and health security. And herein lies mutual self-interest. Replacement levels (e.g., fertility rates) have fallen below 2.1 for non-Hispanic whites yet remain above 2.1 for Hispanics and more recent immigrant groups (Vega, Markides, Angel & Torres-Gil, 2015). These offspring are the Unites States’ future workers and taxpayers. How to inform older white conservatives and aging baby boomers that it is in their mutual self-interest to invest in these young, diverse populations to insure the fiscal sustainability of entitlement programs, is a great and crucial challenge. Changing the public narrative to one of mutual self-interest that is rightly understood can perhaps mitigate the frustrations of the current electorate who are over 50 and white until such time as younger ethnic and minority populations, with lower rates of registration and voting, can catch up to their civic place in the sun.
5) The “next America”: Brownstein and others have amply described the dramatic social changes that will give the United States a new demographic profile. This “next America” will look and act differently than in previous periods. Yet whether we are prepared to invest in these new and diverse populations, as we did when we baby boomers were young, remains an open question. The generational and racial and ethnic tensions of an older, white population adjusting to a young, diverse group of ethnic communities are apparent; but on a hopeful note, this is the demographic dividend of the 21st century. Perhaps at times it helps to hear from outside our national border. As much as we believe in American exceptionalism, we can still learn from other parts of the world.
In 2015, The Economist released a seminal report on America’s Latinos with a cover page entitled: “How to fire up America.” That title was a bit perplexing on first sight, but delving into the special report, it became abundantly clear that this influential UK journal was sending a warning to the United States. In short, it said that “the rise of Latinos is a huge opportunity … the United States must not squander it.” It provided the factual details of the European Union, with declining fertility rates among its population and immigration from foreign populations (e.g., North Africans, Muslims) who have been reticent to integrate and acculturate into German, French, Dutch, English and E.U. societies. In contrast, according to The Economist, the United States is fortunate to have immigrant groups that are open to the American dream and in particular to have one ethic group—Hispanics—with both a fertility rate that is higher than replacement levels and values that are representative of the U.S. civic culture: work ethic, family, patriotism, church. Yet The Economist was also sending a message to the United States: If politicians and nativists, in particular certain—but, by no means all—members of the Republican party, continue to stigmatize this population and voice anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric, the United States may well squander its demographic advantage and not invest in the social, educational, health and civic participation of what will be this country’s largest minority and ethnic group. And this will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the American workforce and taxpayer base.
It is perhaps up to others, outside our shores, to serve as a mirror for the realities facing the United States as it undergoes profound demographic changes and moves inexorably in this century toward a new America that is older and more diverse; changes that will occur in the lifespan of aging baby boomers and young millennials. And herein lies the challenge for my cohort—those who will be with me at my 50th high school reunion in 2016 and with whom we have a common history and are moving toward what we hope will be a serene and enjoyable retirement phase.
6) One last chance: There is perhaps one last chance for my exulted cohort, the baby boomers, to step forward and provide a moral voice and active leadership in righting the American ship of state toward its demographic realities. Those of us who are on the leading edge of our cohort are now moving toward our 70s. Yet, with the dividend of extra years that can be relatively healthy and active, we can still be in the game of life and volunteer, contribute, support and even lead fundamental changes that will address the tremendous social and economic inequities facing our country. And we can speak to the mutual self-interest of investing in younger populations, particularly millennials, ethnic and racial groups, and immigrants. Even at age 70, we can expect another 20-plus years of life—long enough to face the specter of declining retirement savings, diminished Medicare and Medicaid services, continued absence of public long-term care systems and the inevitable vagaries of declining health. We may well face a new level of vulnerability and poverty, making us more dependent on the goodwill of upcoming voters and taxpayers—the very groups that appear to be skeptical of an elderly electorate whose politicians speak to narcissism and division.
As I move toward my last quarter of life, I remain hopeful that in my final years, I will see the full fruition of the aging of the United States. And I remain optimistic that we can once again meet these challenges. I think back on my New Deal friends, all passed away now, who would remind me: “As bad as it is for you today, remember how truly hard it was in the 1930s.” And thus I keep a perspective on our current challenges and look forward to my small part in providing leadership as I move through my golden years.