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Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. Headshot

The Four-Letter Word For Older Voters

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In this election season, political commentators are busily debating why different American subgroups vote the way they do. This year, they're paying increasing attention to older Americans, largely because the elderly are more likely to vote than young people.

I'd like to shed light on what concerns older Americans in this election cycle, but I solemnly swear that I will not mention polling numbers. Instead, my analysis is based on surveys we have conducted with over 1,200 older people on their core beliefs and values, and the kinds of advice they have for future generations (described in my recent book on the topic). I make the following disclaimer: My comments are not partisan -- any party that finds them useful is welcome to them!

In hundreds of interviews with America's elders, I learned that there is one thing about which they have strong - sometimes visceral - feelings. It makes them deeply uneasy, even afraid. And contemporary attitudes about it are staggering to many of them.

For the oldest Americans, the real four-letter word is debt.

Where does this fear come from? It stems in part from the Great Depression. They saw people lose their livelihoods and their homes, making them aware of how tenuous financial security is. They saw what happened to people who couldn't pay their bills, and it instilled in them a frugal mentality. Even 70-year-olds, born after the Depression officially ended, were affected by the experiences of their often traumatized parents.

For this reason, we heard one clear message from the elders: Live within your means. What separates seniors from the baby boomers and later generations is a debt-avoiding mentality: If you can't pay for it now, don't buy it. Older people are natural recyclers, repairers, and re-users. For example, for many "recycling" gift wrap means opening it carefully and saving it for a future present (and the same holds true for tin foil and plastic wrap).

How deeply ingrained is this mentality? Here are a few examples from the elders we talked to.

Evette, 83:

What should young people avoid? Debt! They've got to have the instant gratification thing. I struggle with my granddaughter about it all the time because she doesn't have the patience. She'll get way in debt for something she's gotta have and I keep saying: "You're not ready for this; you don't have a good down payment." And also, I want her to have a cushion because sometimes it takes a while in between jobs, and she's just not prepared to do that. She's just like; "Well I know I'm going to have this job always." Well, my first husband; in ten years of marriage, he had thirteen different jobs. And we had three small children and it was very nerve-wracking.

Pru, 75:

One of the things that I would tell any young person was save a little money every week for yourself. Make sure those few dollars a week are put away because that compounds and at the end of fifty years you're going to have a nice nest egg if you pay yourself first. We have granddaughters that are paying off student loans that are just out of sight. They both worked as waitresses and if they had put aside a few dollars a week for themselves, they might not be struggling so much.

Florence, 91

For major purchases, save first and pay cash. This goes for cars and it can be done. As soon as I've bought a car, I start saving (in the savings account) for the next. Making payments adds much more to the cost. That money can be yours to use.

We learned that older Americans are baffled by America's debt culture, and when the housing bubble burst, they could easily have said to us: "I told you so." On the issue of the federal deficit, the personal and political are mixed: the abhorrence of being deeply in debt extends from their own financial lives to anxiety about our national debt. And we heard this response from most of the elders we interviewed, whether their party affiliation was Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Green.

Therefore, the advice to any politician or party that wants to appeal to the 70-and-over set is this: Convince them that you really care about the debt we're in, and give them reasonable and detailed plans for dealing with it.

Older Americans are sometimes accused of hoarding societal resources (like Social Security). But remember, these are people who know how to sacrifice - just ask someone who held her family together during World War II, or was a child during the Depression. Our interviews suggest that they would be willing to sacrifice again, if they truly believe it will reduce the national debt.

Someone should offer them a deficit-reduction plan they understand and can support. I predict they would cross party lines to do so.

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