In 2019, about one in every 11 people on Earth was 65 or older. By 2050, that number will nearly double, rising to one in six, according to the United Nations.
The World Health Organization says the number of people 60 or older will more than double from 2015 to 2050, from 900 million to 2 billion.
Going from 12 percent of the world’s population to 22 percent in only 35 years is a steep increase for one age group in a relatively short amount of time.
Then consider that same demographic in the U.S. historically shows up for elections more than any other age group, percentagewise – at least in the past nine presidential elections – and we could see a serious shift in electoral power in the coming decades.
It stands to reason older voters, and the issues about which they care, will see disproportionate growth in leverage over the rest of the electorate by the century’s halfway mark.
Does that mean the future seniors from Generation X and millennials will elect candidates from the party most willing to promise free senior housing, mandatory bumps in Social Security, more comprehensive Medicare for more people, and other issues benefiting older Americans?
Power shift coming, but how?
Maybe … but not likely, experts say. Though most agree more electoral power will shift to favor older voters even more, how that power manifests itself in 30 years is difficult to predict during a time when surprise is one of the defining traits of politics.
“There are two substantial demographic trends that are going to deeply affect American politics — the aging of the electorate, and the growing diversity of the electorate,” said Corey Cook, a political science professor, interim provost and chief academic officer at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.
“The latter has gotten a ton of attention, but the former is as significant. Older voters have typically been overrepresented in the electorate — especially in non-presidential elections — because they are disproportionately more likely to be registered and more likely to vote. And as the population ages, I would expect that to increase.
“In California, voters are older, white, and more affluent than non-voters.”
Bay Area voters aging and diversifying
Plan Bay Area 2050 is a long-term assessment and planning document jointly published in 2021 by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).
The planning document projects adults 65 and over in the nine Bay Area counties to increase, from 14 percent in 2015, to 23 percent in 2050.
While the senior population will see an overall boost in percentage, so will people of color. Plan Bay Area 2050 projects the Bay Area’s white population to decrease, from 3.1 million to 2.9 million, while the Hispanic population increases from 1.8 million to 3 million. The “other non-Hispanic” population will rise from 2.3 million to 3.8 million. The Black, non-Hispanic population will see a slight increase, from .5 million to .6 million.
Many of those increases will come through immigration, another factor changing how elderly voters look. Immigrants and non-white voters are no longer so predictable.
“The economic differences between older people of color and white people can be pretty large, especially in terms of readiness for retirement and wealth,” said Stephen Menendian, the assistant director of University of California at Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute.
“People of color are less likely to have defined benefit retirements/pensions and more likely to have optional defined contribution plans,” Menendian said. “This means that the elderly in 40 years are probably more likely to need additional economic supports than they even want now.”
Predicting 2050 senior votes a ‘fool’s errand’
Predicting how older voters will lean in 2050 is “a fool’s errand,” said Michael Hout, a sociology professor who chaired UC Berkeley’s demography department from 2008 to 2013.
Which doesn’t mean they won’t hold considerable leverage. Hout said the 55 to 64 age group holds “the key to any demography-based forecast. They swung from pro-Obama in 2008 and 2012 to the age group that supported Trump most in 2016.
“So where should we put them in 2024? Stay Trumpish? Swing back toward the Dems? Demography can’t tell you that,” Hout said.
Not even within voters’ ethnicities and issues that typically matter to people their age, he said.
“Those are the contingencies and uncertainties,” said Hout, who retired from UC Berkeley but still teaches at New York University. “The sum of all those questions — some pushing (Democrats), some pushing (Republicans) that make the demographic projections too imprecise to be useful.”
Nicholas Creel, a political scientist and professor of business law at Georgia College and State University, said there will be a new demographic reality to which political parties must adjust. One thing he said won’t change is older voters being the most active, and elections may become more issue driven.
“The leverage wielded by seniors is already fairly impressive,” Creel said. “This is how Social Security is often referenced as a ‘third rail issue,’ given that any politician who touches it effectively kills their career. Further, one of the biggest expansions of the entitlement system prior to Obamacare was done under George W. Bush, a Republican, as he shepherded a bill to expand Medicare into the covering of prescription drugs.”
Social issues likely to get more support
Creel said entitlements will get the most attention as seniors gain more electoral leverage.
“We can expect to continue to see the Republican Party to put out populist messages on things like Social Security,” he said. “Despite their history of being a financially conservative party, future candidates from the GOP will likely echo Donald Trump‘s 2016 and 2020 campaign promises not to be a part of any cuts to Social Security or Medicare. The old calls for privatization or cuts will be all but extinguished by the reality that too much of the voting population relies on those programs for that message to succeed.”
Mindy Serin has managed the digital side of campaigns all over the U.S., including managing data and operations for former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign in 2008.
She said, with people of color in the majority by 2050, there could be a cultural shift. “I see more funding at the local/state level, due to an increase in all social safety nets at the local/state level in major cities.”
Serin said most younger Republicans she has met campaigning around the country were concerned with higher taxes and not social issues, which could challenge stereotypes about people naturally becoming more conservative simply because they age.
“I don’t think people necessarily become more conservative,” Serin said. “I think new trends and issues come out as a result of the path already being paved, and that new stuff is scary to some. So, they are conservative when put against what is new. But they don’t really go against what they once fought for.”
And may fight for again, especially with more political muscle in the future.
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the RRF Foundation for Aging.