Elder Meltdown Threatens America
September 20, 2010
How can younger Americans’ 21st century ideals survive a powerful elder generation clinging to 19th century tribalism and prejudice?
For thousands of years, elders embodying unchanging wisdoms served as the leaders and icons of their cultures. But in rapidly changing societies like modern America’s, anthropologist Margaret Mead warned 40 years ago, “the alienation of the old” clinging to traditional fears and prejudices menace young people and the viability of diversifying multicultures. Those who harbor nostalgic illusions of restoring elder values should take a hard, unsentimental look at what today’s aging Americans actually believe.
A wealth of polls, surveys and voting studies reveal an alarming reality: today’s elderly no longer resemble the image of sweetly indulgent grandparents doting on their grandchildren and guarding their well-being. On issue after issue, tens of millions—and often outright majorities—of older and middle-aged Americans embrace dangerously primitive racial, sexual, and religious bigotries, selfish fiscal hypocrisy, and paranoid hallucinations that drive increasingly reactionary “Tea Party” politics.
Today’s elder meltdown appears centered in intense fear and anger toward the rising visibility of minorities, the increasing interconnection of global subcultures, and refusal to adapt to today’s multiracial, multicultural America. How can senior citizens and middle-aged Baby Boomers contribute to resolving the complex issues facing today’s diversifying society—in which half of Americans under age 25 will be minorities by 2025—when a majority of those age 50 and older still opposeinterracial marriage? When most Boomers reject not just illegal, but all legal immigration as well? When majorities of older Americans support arch-reactionary candidates, repressive laws, and tax cuts transferring massive wealth to millionaires, most of them among their number? When half the elderly dismiss not just the science surrounding such issues as climate change and evolution, but scientific inquiry itself?
Today’s old-young chasms far exceed those of the Sixties’ famous “generation gap.” If Republicans, including Tea Party extremists like Sharron Angle of Nevada and Carly Fiorina in California gain power in November’s election, the reason will be the fear-inflamed aged outvoting the more tolerant young. The same seniors (even Tea Party anti-taxers) who overwhelmingly support taxpayer-provided welfare subsidies are staunchly opposed to even modest public support for health care, education, and social programs for younger Americans—and are even willing to impoverish future seniors Today’s old are the strongest backers of far-right candidates who advocate abolishing or privatizing Social Security and Medicare for later retirees.
Summarized below are just a few of the issues on which younger Americans preparing for the transition to America’s diverse, global multiculture with more progressive ideals on the economy, the environment, tolerance, and community responsibility are being sabotaged by elders’ antiquated tribal fears.
Aging racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance
Widespread bigotries emerge in survey after survey documenting the reactionary, elder-dominated panics against President Barack Obama and retreat from all things modern. Racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and religiously intolerant attitudes among middle-aged and senior citizens remain entrenched even as they are rapidly diminishing among the young. Archaic bigotries remain so bafflingly persistent among the elderly, the Chicago Tribune and Science Daily reported, that some neuroscientists now propose the demeaning excuse that “many older citizens may be unable to suppress their prejudicial impulses” due to “brain atrophy.”
Elder racism is indeed appalling. One would think, half a century after the Civil Rights era, that Americans at least would have put ancient Jim-Crow revulsion against “race mixing” and “miscegenation” behind us. Not true. While “almost all Millennials [those born after 1980] accept interracial marriage,” a 2010 Pew Research Center pollfound, just 36% of whites and 59% of blacks age 65 and older (and equally shocking, just 52% of white Baby Boomers age 50-64, supposedly a “post civil rights” generation) “would be fine with a family member’s marriage to someone of any other race/ethnicity.” That survey found just one-third of the elderly report having any friends of other races, compared to majorities of supposedly more sheltered young people.
Elder xenophobia also is rampant. Few old-young divisions are as gaping as the “generation gap on immigration,” a May 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll found. Baby Boomer and elderly respondents’ harsh “no newcomers” stance is in stark “generational conflict” with younger ones’ “welcome all” attitudes. CNN’s national poll in August 2010 found majorities of voters over age 35, led by 57% of those over 65, support curbing the 14th amendment to strip citizenship status from children of illegal immigrants, a hostility strongly opposed by the young.
Foretelling even more political turbulence, racial and anti-immigrant tensions are highest in states such as Arizona and Florida with the widest “cultural generation gap”—an aging population most dominated by whites amid a young one with high proportions of minorities—NYT/CBS and Brooking Institutions surveys reported. A July 2010 Arizona Republic poll found 18-34 year-olds oppose that state’s draconian anti-immigrant law by a 16-point margin, while older voters support repressive crackdowns on Latino immigrants by a crushing 35 points.
Older Americans’ religious prejudices appear to be growing even as the young are more tolerant. Though all ages show much room for improvement, over-30 ages—again led by seniors—are staunchly opposed to having an Islamic cultural center built near New York City’s “Ground Zero” while young respondents are evenly split. Typical polls bySienna Research Institute and CNN found two-thirds to three-fourths of those 65 and older against building the Islamic center; more than one-third think Muslims have no constitutional right to build the center.
Gay rights generates such massive old-young division that “18-29 year-olds in Alabama [the most anti-gay state overall] … are more supportive of gay marriage than people 65 and older in Massachusetts [the most pro-gay state], a detailed sociological study found. Recent national polling by CNN similarly reported 64% of those over 65 as well as a majority of middle-agers are opposed to gay marriage while younger ages are strongly supportive, echoed in a 2010Pew Research Center report and many other studies. CNN’s 2008 National Exit poll found every older group, led by seniors’ 61% support, backed California’s ban-gay-marriage Proposition 8, countering voters age 18-29 who rejected Proposition 8 by 39-61% landslide. White, Latino, and other young voters of every race voted to affirm gay marriage by 20 to 30-point landslides while their elders of the same races endorsed homophobia by equally stunning margins.
The “Tea Party”: A senior white backlash
Older Americans’ deep-seated bigotries translate into reactionary candidate voting as well. CNN’s 2008 National Exit Poll found voters 65 and older were more anxious about Obama’s race, endorsed conservative Republican policies, and were the only age group to vote for John McCain. Obama is president (and Sarah Palin is not vice president) only because voters under age 30 strongly overruled the Republican surge among senior citizens. Voters age 18-29 supported Obama/Biden by a 66-32% margin, while those 65 and older endorsed McCain/Palin by 53-45%, with ages 30-64 evenly split.
Analysis by Rock the Vote of CNN exit polls estimate that voters under age 30 would have carried 46 of the 50 states (plus Washington, D.C. for Obama, a 455-57 electoral vote margin. The National Student Mock Electionshowed middle and high school students even more liberal, supporting Obama by a 68% landslide that would have carried 49 states—including such staunchly Republican-elder states as Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, and West Virginia. These generational splits of 40 points or more in state after state now exceed those found by gender and are far greater than found in past presidential elections.
Similarly, in 2004, voters under age 30 would have elected Democrat John Kerry over President George Bush by a 375-163 electoral beatdown and, in 2006, favored Democrats for Congress more than any older age group. A 2010 Gallup Poll, consistent with other surveys, reported that while voters under 30 favor 2010 Democratic congressional candidates by a 12-point margin, all older ages support Republicans, led by a 9-point margin among voter 65 and older.
Today’s atavistic “Tea Party” is overwhelmingly an older White movement. An April 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll found three-fourths of its adherents are 45 and older; just 7% are under age 30 and 8% identify as Black or other nonwhite races. A Public Policy poll found that those over 65 (with ages 45-64 close behind) are the only age group to rate ultra-conservative Republicans like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin favorably and would vote overwhelmingly for them as president over Obama, while young people disfavor Republicans (especially Palin) by large margins. SurveyUSA tracking polls show that with a few local nuances, younger voters are the most likely (and often the only) age group to oppose reactionary candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada and Carly Fiorina in California (support for Kentucky’s Rand Paul show sharp fluctuations), while middle-aged and elderly voters threaten to hand far-right extremists Senate and statehouse seats.
Large political divisions by age are only partly due to differing demographics (75% of Americans age 45 and older are Whites of European origin, compared to just 57% of those under age 25). Generational attitude fissures also are largewithin races. Among voters under age 30, CNN exit polls found, just 44% of Whites, 19% of Latinos, and 3% of African Americans voted Republican in 2008, compared to 57% of Whites, 36% of Latinos, and 4% of Blacks ages 30 and older—with Republican support (59% among Whites, 32% among Latinos, 6% among Blacks) even higher among those age 65 and older.
Merely being politically conservative doesn’t prove elder backwardness, of course; the issue is why the old are so reactionary. Today’s elder reaction is cynical and dishonest. In addition to racial, ethnic, and religious prejudices, danger signals of rising elder entitlement and alienation surfaced in the 1994 Third Millennium survey, which found nearly six in 10 retirees refusing to accept slower growth in their benefits in order to avoid higher taxes on younger generations—not even if senior welfare spending provoked a “major financial crisis.” Cities from Santa Cruz to Oklahoma City and elsewhere increasingly are now forced to bribe seniors with tax exemptions and rebates to deter them from voting down vital school and civic improvement funding measures that their own considerably poorer parents and grandparents supported in past decades.
The bitter irony is that older generations, generously funded in their younger years by massive government subsidies from the GI Bill to Sixties welfare programs and low-cost, tax-supported universities, now angrily guard their record-high incomes (among ages 45-64, average annual household incomes now approach $100,000 and average personal assets top $200,000) even from modest taxation to support today’s young. Yet, young people are not retaliating. TheAARP reports that young people strongly support Social Security, even though recent polls find large majorities of those under age 35 fearing they’ll never collect it themselves.
Younger Americans support expiration of the Bush tax cuts for those making $250,000 per year or more, while middle-agers and seniors are opposed. The same CNN poll reported, younger ages favored the August 2010, $26 billion Congressional appropriation to help states fund Medicaid payments and avoid teacher layoffs, while those over 65 were evenly divided. Likewise, Gallup, Quinnipiac, and other surveys found young people more supportive of health care reform, including the “public option” for government-provided insurance while older ages were opposed to any public health care system other than their own Medicare. While all ages generally oppose continuing the war in Afghanistan, the youngest are the most likely, by substantial margins, to reject sending more troops and to favor withdrawal, a typical Quinnipiac Poll found.
The widening age splits in Americans’ attitudes may relate to, or perhaps influence, the differing news sources the generations consume. Media analysts report the average age of Fox News viewers is over 65 (considerably older than even other broadcast news viewers); Rush Limbaugh’s average listener is a 67-year-old man. Meanwhile, nearly four in 10 consumers of AlterNet, a smaller liberal-left source, are under age 35, and two-thirds are under age 50.
Aging Americans’ rigid moralizing parallels rising personal troubles
Middle-aged and older Americans display massive increases in severe personal problems in recent decades. Yet, even as FBI and public health reports show today’s Americans ages 45 and older are the most drug-abusing, criminally arrested, family-disarrayed older generation on record, elders indulge harshly moralistic positions on “values” issues. The latest Gallup Poll reveals support for abortion declines with age, with a majority of those 65 and older now describing themselves as “pro life.” Generational divisions are evident even within races. An August 2010AP-Univision poll of Latinos found that as for gay marriage, support for abortion is strongest among age 18-29 and weakest among those 65 and older. Support for marijuana criminalization also rises with age. A majority of those under 35 favor legalization, while 7 in 10 over 65 want to continue arresting pot smokers, a typical CBS poll found.
On crackpot notions such as creationism, “birthers,” and “death panels,” many elders have lapsed into disturbing self-indulgence. Americans age 18-34 endorse evolution over creationism by a 2.5-1 margin while those 55 and older are evenly split. Just 4% of younger Americans believe Obama was not born in the United States, compared to nearly one-third of those 60 and older, who back “ “birther” fanaticism. And while no age group seriously believed health care reform included plots to kill people, those over 60 were nearly twice as likely to swallow reactionary “death panels” propaganda than those under age 30.
Meanwhile, five in six young people place more trust in scientists than in lobbyist claims and religious dogmas for information on climate change, a much higher proportion than found for older Americans. “Young people are now far more likely than older Americans to view global warming as a very serious problem,” reports Pew Research Center. “Across all age groups, except those younger than age 30, the percent who think warming is a very serious problem has declined since April 2008.” Perhaps elder indifference reflects the fact that younger and future generations will bear the brunt of climate change.
Aging alienation, narcissism, and expedience
While public media and commentaries lambaste young people for supposed narcissism, materialism, reckless irrationality, shortsighted disregard for the future, deficient moral values, and whatever insult du jour pops into commentators’ heads, it is the old who most provably manifest these qualities. Dozens of recent surveys on major issues by age paint a clear picture of a younger generation poised to embrace America’s 21st century who increasingly being are sabotaged by aging America clinging to tribal, pre-civil-rights-era conceits and fears.
Blaming aging brain atrophy for senseless phobias and racisms (which raises disturbing biodeterminist implications) ignores the roughly one-third of elderly who don’t subscribe to such notions, the fraction of younger ages who do—and, more pointedly, the cynical, self-serving nature of elder bigotries and hostilities, especially among wealthier Whites. That older Americans’ attitudes conveniently wind up promoting assertions of their own racial, religious, and moral superiority and entitlement to more public resources, low taxes, and avoidance of personal sacrifices for the public good—that is, the runaway self-interest and anti-community doctrines defining the Tea Party movement—hardly suggests brain damage. It suggests an expedient indifference to the future that is leading older generations to abandon a multicultural America with which their narrow loyalties no longer identify.
Taken as a whole, most older Americans’ views reveal a generational agenda to maximize comfortable lifestyles for today’s aging citizenry until they pass from the scene, even if they render the challenges and suffering of their children and grandchildren infinitely more difficult. How, then, do young people hold grandparents—and, on many issues, middle-agers and a few younger folks as well—responsible for their increasingly anti-social attitudes and politics that jeopardize the future the young must inhabit?