But to Nora Super, the senior director of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, it goes well beyond that.
“Covid set us back, unfortunately, on some of the negative stereotypes about aging,” says Super. “We’ve seen the pervasive ageism in our society, and that has energized older people to say, ‘Hey, I’m not dead yet.’”
In her research, including a stint as executive director of the White House Conference on Aging, Super has found that it’s not just the way we think of aging that is changing, it’s seniors themselves. There are real cultural shifts in the over-65 age bracket that are likely to outlast the concerns about the virus, and keep reshaping U.S. electorate.
All told, she sees an “intensity around older voters and how they look at what’s happening during this crisis that has really sort of flipped the script on this election.”
The ranks of America’s seniors are expanding rapidly — 10,000 people turn 65 every day, Super notes — and that has profound implications for American politics in 2020 and beyond. And while, to some extent, politics has long featured a component of generational warfare, that could easily intensify over the next decade. To sort through all of that, POLITICO spoke with Super on Wednesday. A transcript of that conversation is below, condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Trump’s dropping support from seniors this time has surprised a lot of people. What changed between 2016 and now?
Nora Super: Ten thousand people turn 65 every day in America. And Baby Boomers — they go from age 56 to 72 — that’s a huge number of people. But then as you look at the differences between people who are at the tail end of the baby boom — like I am — and those who were on the leading edge — who are old enough to have taken part in the March on Washington, the Vietnam War, etc. — the issues that engage “older” voters today aren’t necessarily the same that did even four years ago.
A majority of voters ages 65 and up haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Al Gore — it’s been two decades — and the trend has been that people get more conservative as they get older. The two things really changing that in this election are: one, that Trump doesn’t fit the mold of most conservatives in terms of traditional beliefs and fiscal responsibility, things that people have typically associated with Republicans and with older voters, and, two, Covid-19.
The pandemic has shone a spotlight on older adults, because they are most at risk — the numbers who die from Covid or get it and have bad health complications just increases dramatically the older that you get. People who are older are more fearful about actually getting sick from the disease. They’ve also seen it: They’re more likely to know someone who’s been infected or have died.
There’s a feeling of vulnerability with older people in terms of just being reliant on their Social Security, or having a fear of losing their jobs — which is obviously even more the case during the pandemic. Many older adults have lost their jobs, and it’s much more difficult to find a job again when you’re in your 50s or older due to age discrimination, among other things. Health care has always been a top issue for older voters. Even with Medicare coverage, people see the high cost of drugs, the high co-payments they have, some of the inaccessibility issues.
These are real pocketbook, kitchen-table issues that people look at and say, “Who’s going to help me solve these things that I’m having trouble with?” And all of that has created this intensity around older voters and how they look at what’s happening during this crisis that has really sort of flipped the script on this election. Poll after poll is showing Biden trending well. And coronavirus — especially within the past week — is the top headline every day, which isn’t good for President Trump.
There’s also the geographic issue where older people live — the states with the highest percentage of people over 60. In Florida, the power of older voters and the way this pandemic has changed the way they think about things has a big impact. A lot of the states that Trump won in 2016 in the so-called “Rust Belt” also have disproportionately older people in them.
As a matter of practical experience, how has the pandemic altered the lives of older Americans?
The real, personal drama for so many older people in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities is that they’ve been socially isolated from their families for going on seven months now. But it’s not just them, and it’s not just older people in those living situations who are impacted by this — it’s their families, too. People can’t see their moms and dads. Grandparents can’t see their grandkids. It really has a multiplier effect because of such emphasis on the risk to older people.
There have been warnings about being at higher risk from Covid when you’re 65 and over. But “people over 65” is a very heterogeneous population. They’re not all the same. Look at people like Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen — you don’t think of them as “old.”
Early on in the pandemic, when there was a fear of shortage of ventilators, some places — Italy and Brazil and others — said that if you get sick and you’re 65 or over, you’re not going to get a ventilator. They just cut people off. And there are some of the states in the U.S. that had those types of policies on the books — which, again, was horrifying. At the time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still alive, this icon in her 80s. Tony Fauci is in his 70s. And the idea that they wouldn’t get a ventilator because they were “over 65,” when they’re healthier and more active than a lot of younger people …
Covid set us back, unfortunately, on some of the negative stereotypes about aging: That people over 65 are frail and should stay at home and not go out. Now, some of that risk is real; some of it’s a little perceived. But we’ve seen the pervasive ageism in our society, and that has energized older people to say, “Hey, I’m not dead yet.”
There’s a lot of frustration when you talk to older people about this sense that they don’t matter. People say, “They don’t do anything for the economy,” or “They’re not working” — neither of which are true, by the way. We really need to change the way people think about age.
That’s interesting: When we talk about Covid’s impact on older Americans’ lives, it’s not just about the health risks and isolation; it’s also about the frustration and harm from these tired stereotypes about aging. Can you expand on that a bit?
When we think of older people, often the images that you’ll see in media are of people with canes, or people in wheelchairs, or when there’s a graphic illustration of an older person, they’re hunched over. And research has shown that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy: People think, “Oh, I’m not supposed to be able to walk well when I’m 70,” or, “I should be in pain all the time,” or assuming that everyone’s going to get dementia, and that’s just what happens when you get old. But that’s actually not a normal occurrence in aging; it’s just something our society has accepted, especially so for aging in minority populations. We’ve seen these media stereotypes for a while.
In terms of the way we think about aging, I’m reminded of the TV show, “All in the Family.”
Yeah, of course. I loved it.
In my mind, and I suspect the minds of most people, Archie Bunker is this cranky old man. But the character was actually 46 or 47 when the show began. Our concept of what “old” is and what different ages look like has changed drastically over the past few decades. How should we expect it to evolve with more Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, and what are the political implications of that?
There are many well-documented studies that look at a 100-year life, and really starting to have people think about life and your lifespan differently, thinking that you’ll live until you’re 100. We’ve been trying to think about new ways to keep people engaged and to see their life as long. That makes you think about your investments differently, it makes you think about what you do for a living, how you treat your body — all sorts of things.
Social Security and Medicare are built on this sort-of 1950s model, when people died at age 67, 68 or so. They only got benefits for a few years. And now, people are going to get them for 30 years. Well, it doesn’t really make sense to expect to work 40 years, and then live another 30 years in retirement. In the coming years, because of the sheer numbers, the percentage of federal spending that’s going to go to Social Security and Medicare is just going to be huge. Politically, we’ll have to address that.
My fear is that there will be a big generational divide, with younger people saying, “Well, I don’t want my tax money to go to all these older people with Medicare and Social Security.” But it’s still going to be center stage, because of the spending implications. There will be new proposals to try to reduce costs to make health care more efficient, to help people stay healthy. So, some of it will be positive.
The other thing is just the whole caregiving issue—just the number of caregivers that will be needed for this aging population. In 2010, for every American aged 80 and up, there were seven family members who were potential caregivers. In a few years, that ratio will drop down to just 4 for every 1. As this Baby Boomer cohort ages, even though some of us are young and healthy, there are some who will turn 85 pretty soon. They will need long-term services and support. Studies show that something like 70 percent of people over 65 will need some sort of assistance with daily activities of living. That’s going to be a huge issue because right now, the only thing we have in our country is a fallback plan, is Medicaid. And then the services you pay out of pocket are just way too expensive.
There have been some troubling numbers recently about the way that the pandemic has altered life for working mothers. Women often bear the brunt of child care responsibilities, and many women have been forced to drop out of the labor market or reduce their hours to take care of their kids as schools and child care centers close. Should we expect the shortage of professional caregivers and the increasing demand to have a similar effect on working women?
Oh, it’s already had that effect. Elder care-giving really disrupts people’s work lives.
I do a lot of work on dementia. And for really long illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease, women bear the health and economic burden. It’s impossible to manage someone living with dementia while you’re working full time. If a parent gets sick, the woman usually takes care of her husband first: He gets sick, she takes care of him. Sometimes, she has to step out of the workforce to do that. Or perhaps she never did work—then the implications for her economic situation and health really hurt her in the long run. You can look at study after study: The next person [to become the caregiver] is the daughter, then the daughter-in-law. It’s very rarely a man.
But it has this economic impact, where you can’t get out of that hole afterwards. We’ve been looking at policy proposals that would give women credits and Social Security for doing family care-giving. You know, Biden has a proposal to give a family tax credit for people who do care-giving.
When it comes to the idea of a potential generational political fight, we’ve begun to see things like “defund the police” emerge this year—movements that stir up and take on what had until then been a sacrosanct political position. Do you think it’s likely that we’d see a—for lack of a better term—“defund Social Security” type of movement?
Probably not if Biden or Trump gets elected, because both have said they’re not touching Social Security. But, you know, a younger generation will say we’ve got to look at entitlement spending, and I definitely think that will be in there. You already see that a bit with climate change activists who really want to focus on climate, and worry that we’re putting all this money into other things.
Over the past few years, we’ve really tried to talk about racism and sexism. But ageism is the -ism people don’t talk about. There are huge disparities in care for older people—and especially people from minority communities. What I try to do is bring it together, so we’re not pitting people against each other. There are ways we can work together to solve these problems.
For example, when [New York] Governor Andrew Cuomo asked for people to volunteer at the hospitals earlier in the pandemic, a huge percentage of the retired doctors and nurses came back because they saw it as their duty to help. We need to make sure that stories about older Americans in the pandemic also show the positive aspects that help you see how we really are dependent on each generation. We need to work together and not pit each other against each other.
Last question: We are in a presidential election where regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins, they will be the oldest president ever to take the oath of office. How will that affect the conversation about aging in the years to come?
Trump and Biden, they’re both really what we would classify as senior citizens, but they never talk about themselves being “at risk.” You know, that’s the fear of looking like they’re weak. I think that’s part of it, too, is like, you know, those of us who work in aging to say like, hey, I’m proud. You know, I’m 56. That means I’ve, like, I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve got a lot of experience. I have a lot to add to this conversation. I certainly have a lot I can learn from younger people that have new ideas.
But, you know, when you ask someone, “What’s an older person?” It’s typically 10 years older than they are, regardless of their age, because no one wants to be “old.” Hopefully, we’ll get to a place where people really embrace their age, and not want to be classified necessarily by what that is, but also see the benefits that being older brings to our society.