Biden has talked a lot about seniors. There is an obvious reason.
Biden was explicitly referencing a proposal by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would require Congress to reauthorize all legislation every five years — meaning funding for everything would disappear unless it was to backed by the legislature. But the president could also have referenced other rumbles from Republican politicians about the programs’ potential targeting. The Washington Post covered this last month; HuffPost spoke with a prominent Republican after the speech who admitted changes to the programs might be needed.
But in the moment, Biden and the Republicans finally landed in the same place. One of the few moments of bipartisan applause was over the agreement that Social Security and Medicare protection should be a central concern of the federal government.
There’s a very good reason that’s where they ended up. The US population is aging at a rapid and unprecedented rate, which means the number of people relying on these programs is skyrocketing. And because older Americans are voting more, very few elected officials want to come out in favor of the cuts.
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During the speech, Biden mentioned the elderly (or elderly) nine times, the most people mentioned in any state in the Union in the past 40 years. He also mentioned Medicare and Social Security more frequently than past presidents, though that’s partly due to his back and forth with Republicans in attendance.
The previous points where discussions of Medicare and Social Security were common were during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In the late 1990s, Clinton warned of the danger that the Social Security Trust Fund could be spent by 2032, suggesting that the federal government’s sudden budget surplus be largely devoted to supporting the program. A few years later, Bush advocated for reforms to both programs. He warned that Social Security would be bankrupt by 2042 as he pushed for changes such as allowing young workers to divert their savings to personal accounts.
These were times when America was aging, but not to the degree we see now. In 1990, there were about 31 million people aged 65 and over, a group that represented about 13% of the population. Ten years later, this group numbered about 35 million people and almost the same percentage of the population.
Today, there are more than 54 million people aged 65 and over, or 16% of the population. And the Census Bureau expects those numbers to rise over the next few decades.
It’s because of the baby boom. The rise in births that began in 1946 led to an increase in the number of people aged 65 from 2011. The boom peaked in the late 1950s, however, which means we are seeing people being added to this age group at a rapid pace. In 2021, there were 4.2 million 63-year-olds in the United States, meaning that on average about 11,500 people reach retirement age every day this year.
Since the beginning of the baby boom, this has been the pattern: a huge wave of people of a given age, forcing the economy and politicians to accommodate them. (I’ll note here that I wrote a book on the subject.) What we’re seeing now with the government trying to figure out how to respond to this increase in retirees is the same thing the country saw when baby boomers entered in the labor market. or when they reach kindergarten age: things had to change to take into account the scale of the generation.
There is another important aspect here. It is traditionally elected Republicans who have sought to overhaul these programs. But older Americans make up the Republican Party much more than the Democratic Party. Analysis of The Post electoral register carried out last month shows that people aged 65 and over represent a third of registered Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of participants are 50 or older. Potential threats to programs used by older Americans should therefore be less acceptable to the GOP right now, no more.
It is likely that we are at the tip of the iceberg on this issue. The number of seniors is expected to continue to rise over the coming decades, partly thanks to the baby boom. The percentage of the population aged 65 and over will continue to increase. The need to support programs benefiting older Americans will only grow.
Biden, America’s first Silent Generation president, is aware of this pattern. He knows that elevating threats to Social Security and Medicare (however imminent) is an effective way to unbalance Republicans; he probably also knows that the GOP base is more dependent on these programs than his own. In other words, the aging baby boom helped make Social Security a corner issue for Democrats.
These short-term policies, however, are less strained than the long-term ones. The rise in the number of working-age Americans as baby boomers hit their 20s has helped swell Social Security trust funds — funds are now drawn as these workers age. It’s another in a long line of shocks to the system as the baby boom has aged. And it remains to be determined how it is solved.