Racial attitudes, the generation gap, and the political perfect storm

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching closely the recent efforts by the National Journal to prominently showcase stories, polls, and news events that highlight demography and population change. With a particular focus on politics, the “Next America” project, beginning with the articles written by Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein, is an “unprecedented effort to explore the significant political, economic and social impact of profound racial and cultural changes.” I was grabbed by some of the findings from their latest article “Diversity Now.”

It is no surprise to anyone that the nation’s population is changing in a fundamental way. As a whole, the population is growing older, and this change is overlaying deep and enduring racial and ethnic divides in this country. The young are racially and ethnically diverse; the old are predominately white. In a few decades the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the United States will become “majority-minority.”  These fundamental changes will bring tremendous political challenges, as they have already begun to do. Perhaps not since the 1960s, when the boomers first entered the political scene en masse, will this country experience such generational conflict. Think of current political struggles over the national debt, old-age entitlement spending, or immigration and then imagine what the political debate around these issues will look like in a decade or two when more of today’s young people enter the political arena. The 2008 presidential race between Obama and McCain somewhat reflected this racial and generational gap. Obama, America’s first President of black descent, won with a minority of white voters while earning more than 80 percent of the support of non-whites; a strong majority of young people while declining support with older ages.

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How old is old? Is 80 the new 65?

Most of us have heard talk about the Baby Boomers and how they will impact the U.S. population in the next few decades.  The Boomers are the large group of people (76 million) who were born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964.   The oldest members of the cohort have just started turning 65 in the past year, and they are starting to become eligible for many benefits that are provided to the “elderly.”  But more and more, it feels strange to categorize these individuals as “elderly.”  The words elderly and senior conjure up the notion of someone far more frail and feeble than the many vibrant, active people age 65 and older with whom a lot of us interact on a daily basis.  According to the American Community Survey, 1 in 4 Americans age 65 to 74 are still in the labor force, and many of the others are retirees who still actively volunteer or provide care for grandchildren or even their own parents.  These are folks who run in marathons and go back to school.  So why are we calling them elderly?

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