One of the abiding realities of our political era is a major generational split anchored on the right by disproportionately conservative seniors and on the left by disproportionately progressive millennials and post-millennials. This is often thought of as a perfectly natural, even inevitable, phenomenon: Young people are adventurous, open to new ways of thinking, and not terribly invested in the status quo, while old folks have time-tested views, assets they want to protect, and a growing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.
There is some truth in those stereotypes, though different cohorts of young people in the past have been far more conservative than today’s, and on non-cultural matters, seniors have sometimes been as or even more progressive than their children or grandchildren (e.g., the so-called Greatest Generation, which mostly came of age during the Great Depression, was persistently Democratic-leaning politically).
But it is important to note that some generational disjunctions in political behavior are driven by demography. It’s well understood that millennials are significantly more diverse than prior generations. But there is something else driving the relative homogeneity of seniors: Poorer people are often hobbled by chronic illness, and succumb to premature death. A new academic study featured at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog explains:
Political participation of the poor is overall lower because of poverty, bad health and many other factors, but millions of impoverished Americans across the country also die prematurely. For instance, in 2015, research funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Social Security Administration revealed that, since 1990, among the bottom quarter of Americans with the least education, life expectancy has either stagnated or decreased. That’s for well over 40 million people.
Add to this negative trend the fact that mortality among the poor increases during middle age — which is when citizens generally get more involved in politics. The premature disappearance of the poor, then, occurs precisely at the moment when they would be expected to reach their “participatory peak” in society. But they don’t live long enough to achieve that milestone.
Since white people suffer proportionately less from poverty than nonwhite people, they do tend to live longer, and in better health, which is conducive to political and other civic activism. The most politically left-bent demographic racial group, African-Americans, has made progress recently in reducing the gap in life expectancy with white peers, but still lags in both lifespans and health, as a 2017 CDC study showed:
For blacks 18 to 64, the data showed that they were at a higher risk of early death than whites.
“These findings are generally consistent with previous reports that use the term ’weathering,’ which suggests that blacks experience premature aging and earlier health decline than whites and that this decline in health accumulates across the entire lifespan and potentially across generations. This happens as a consequence of psychosocial, economic and environmental stressors,” said Leandris Liburd, director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity.
And as the authors of the new study discussed at the Monkey Cage note, age and lifespan disparities can become self-perpetuating:
Inequality in the U.S., in other words, is not solely the result of economic difference. Health, too, has considerable potential to stack the deck against the poor. Socioeconomics, longevity and political participation mutually reinforce each other, making it especially difficult for poor Americans to gain political clout.
So it’s not just a matter of people naturally growing more conservative as they grow older. It’s also a matter of the wealthier — and more conservative — people surviving more often, and for longer.
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