The election of Donald Trump as President has highlighted several divides within our nation along the lines of class, race, and gender. And as the interests of the young and old continue to clash, the often overlooked age gap has also become more prevalent. Trump, the oldest president to have ever taken office, is emblematic of this generational divide. His support stems primarily from “baby boomers,” the massive generation born in the post-war era. As baby boomers continue to retire in growing numbers and enjoy ever-rising political influence, the United States risks becoming a gerontocracy at the expense of its younger citizens. These asymmetric age dynamics have failed to be adequately addressed and have become a major obstacle to achieving a fairer and more just democracy with a government that serves the needs of all.
In interpreting the generational divide in America, it is important to understand who exactly voted for our current president. While Trump supporters are often portrayed as unemployed blue collar workers who lost their manufacturing jobs due to outsourcing and trade, this image is largely a myth. Trump supporters have relatively high incomes, and they are no more likely to be unemployed than Clinton supporters. There is, however, a strong correlation with one’s age and the likelihood that they voted for Trump, with voters over the age of 65 preferring Trump by an 8-point margin and voters between 18 and 29 preferring Clinton by an overwhelming 18-point margin.
These statistics demonstrate the sharp contrast between the interests of young and old voters. Per Pew Surveys, millennials place greater emphasis on the protection of the environment and the treatment of marginalized groups, while baby boomers care more about national security, programs for the elderly such as Medicare and Social Security, and immigration. Additionally, while 72% of millennials say that immigrants strengthen the country due to their hard work and talent, just 48% of baby boomers share that view. Similarly, according to a YouGov poll, 33% of 18- to 29-year-olds hold a favorable view of Islam; that share is just 15% for those over 65. These distinct polarities in perceptions cannot be overlooked, and as the population continues to age and retire, the views of the elderly will hold greater sway. As shown by the controversy over Trump’s policies, including the proposed Mexican border wall and the travel ban imposed on six Muslim-majority nations, the values held by the generations have come into conflict. While millennials’ prioritization of tolerance and equality lead them to extend greater support for Hispanics and Muslims, baby boomers’ desire for tougher immigration and national security laws directly oppose these ideals.
Fiscal policy has also demonstrated an overwhelming age bias. While Republicans portray themselves as advocates for smaller government, over one-third of the federal government’s spending is funneled exclusively into one of its primary voting blocs: the elderly. These funds are dedicated to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which are among the largest and the fastest growing public expenditures. This dwarfs spending on the young, including child care and education. Per Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institute, the U.S. spends 2.4 times more on the elderly than on its youth. Isaacs states, “Our current system of public expenditures is unfair to younger generations… The vast and growing size of unfunded health and retirement benefits will require today’s children to bear a heavy tax burden when they grow up to be working-age adults. For our children’s sake, we should restrain growth in elderly benefits and pay our share of taxes.”
The massive expenditures that go toward the elderly will also burden future generations with debt, while young people’s chances of receiving the same benefits are jeopardized. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that federal debt held by the public will rise from its current 75% of GDP to 141% by 2046, largely due to growth in Social Security and Medicare. Excessive spending on these programs has also put long run fiscal sustainability at risk. Social Security derives much of its current revenue from payroll taxes, and the elderly have received far more from Medicare than they have paid into the program. In effect, these programs are dependent on intergenerational transfers from young workers to old retirees. So despite arguments that the U.S. cannot afford expanded child care programs and affordable universities, Social Security and Medicare are allowed to balloon without question from either side of the aisle. Socialism appears to be acceptable when it benefits the elderly but not the young.
This negligence toward the young has caused the standard of living for children in the U.S. to lag behind other developed nations. Investments in early education, child care, and nutrition have been shown to make significant impacts into adulthood. One such study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which measured the effects of food stamps, concludes that “expanding resources in utero and in early childhood can lead to significant improvement in adult health.” Conversely, chronic underspending has had severe consequences. Compared with other advanced nations, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of child poverty, the highest rate of child mortality, and the lowest weight of newborn babies. This should be an embarrassment for the world’s richest nation. Since the “War on Poverty,” spearheaded in the 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson, the elderly have seen the largest decrease in poverty rate, from about 35% in 1959 to 9% in 2012. Unfortunately, while child poverty has declined, it has decreased at a much lower rate, from 27.3% in 1959 to 21.8% in 2012, and it has even increased in recent years.
Problems facing students also fail to be addressed. As the workforce increasingly requires higher education, university tuition costs have rapidly increased by nearly 80% from 2003 to 2013, more than twice the rate of inflation. As a result, three out of ten young people cite student debt as their biggest financial challenge. This is a valid concern, as student loans comprise nearly one-fifth of expenses for college graduates under 35 with debt. The climbing debt levels have delayed many graduates’ life events, including marriage and home purchase.
Donald Trump ran his campaign on a promise to battle special interests and “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. Of a survey of registered voters, most respondents, even many Clinton supporters, believed that Trump would do a better job than Clinton at reducing the influence of special interests. However, according to the lobbying watchdog group Open Secrets, the most influential special interest group, based on contributions to members of Congress during the 2015-2016 election cycle, was retirees. As Open Secrets states, “The top industry isn’t really an ‘industry’ at all, but individuals who list their occupation as ‘retired’ in federal documents.”
Retirees are the largest special interest group by an extremely wide margin. Those who list their occupation as “retired” donated $93 million to members of Congress during the 2015-2016 election cycle. This is well above every other special interest group, including the financial industry ($55 million), the oil industry ($24 million) and the pharmaceutical industry ($22 million). However, this support is not unique to Republicans, as retirees gave Democrats $25 million during the same cycle, serving as the third largest special interest group. As a result, both sides have been staunch defenders of Medicare, Social Security, and the overall interests of the elderly. The lobbying group American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) further equips retirees with political muscle, as it is one of the most influential lobbies in Washington. Though Trump won the elderly vote because of his promise to take on special interests, he has actually served them significantly.
Much of the age divide, like many of our nation’s inequalities, can be attributed to the composition of Congress. The congressional makeup is not at all representative of the American people. The Congressional Research Service states that our current 115th Congress is among the oldest of any Congress in recent U.S. history, with the average American being about 20 years younger than their representative. Thus, young people face an uphill battle to gain any sort of influence in an institution that is inherently disconnected from their needs. Much of this lack of representation derives from a low voter turnout among young Americans. But this partially falls on politicians, who must do a better job ensuring youth representation. There needs to be a countervailing force for the young, whose low voter turnout is a threat to the United States’ future.
Perhaps what we need is a Department of Youth Development – an agency committed to advocating for policies that would enhance the lives of the young through early child care, education, nutrition, and student debt. This proposed state agency would be active in legal disputes, policy research and advocacy, and ensuring the protection of rights and welfare of children and students. Roles such as addressing child nutrition, juvenile rehabilitation, and college financing may be streamlined into this agency, with the goal of promoting the well-being of youths. While a federal agency may not be popular, it may be necessary to counteract the overwhelming and growing political influence of the elderly. Easing the voting process could also encourage more youth participation, thus leveling the democratic playing field.
The 2016 presidential election represented more than divided economic interests; it portrayed a cultural divide between the old and young. With the election of Trump, the voices of the elderly have been heard and prioritized, crowding out the concerns of the young. As baby boomers push for cultural homogeneity and greater security for their ever-expanding social safety nets, children in the U.S. continue to live with high levels of poverty. Young people shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 65 for the government to start looking out for their interests. The nation needs to start putting the youth first and focus on policies that invest in the future. Automatic voter registration, making election day a Sunday, and a Department of Youth Development would be a modest start. The U.S. must provide the youth with a fair voice in government and level the playing field for the preservation of democracy and the legitimacy of our government.
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