Liberal vs. conservative. Urban vs. rural. Educated “elites” vs. the working class. The tectonic plates of American politics collide along many fault lines, but of growing importance is old vs. young. As HuffPost.com reported last week, the U.S. electorate is older than it has ever been, thanks to the sheer number of Baby Boomers (about 74 million), growing longevity, and falling birth rates. Boomers vote at far higher rates than younger Americans, have a lot more money, and still dominate our country’s economic and civic life. In the 2020 presidential contest, a younger upstart such as Beto O’Rourke, now 46, might leap to the front (see Controversy), but at this moment, the three leading candidates are Donald Trump, who will be 74 on Inauguration Day, Joe Biden, who will be 78, and Bernie Sanders, who will be 79.
Let me not cast stones, for I, too, am a Boomer with no immediate plan to go gentle into that good night. But I’m keenly aware that my personal interests may diverge from those of my daughters, both in their 20s. Older people generally try to protect the status quo, and insist on tax cuts and maximum government benefits for themselves—trillion-dollar deficits be damned. My daughters and their peers have legitimate fears that our winner-take-all economy will never lift them into secure jobs and home ownership. They rightly worry about their access to high-quality health care, the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare, and the vast debt we’re leaving them. They fear that climate change will disrupt their lives on a planet altered in unimaginable ways. For Boomers, these are abstract problems, with needed sacrifices easily deferred until some future date—preferably, after we’re dead. We’ve got ours. No wonder Millennials are so receptive to calls for a massive redistribution of wealth. If we Boomers truly care about our children, perhaps we should think more about the year 2040 in our political choices, and a bit less about ourselves.