WASHINGTON (Nov. 18) -- As the baby boomers who gave us the term "generation gap" turn 65, a new divide is opening between young and old over everything from health care to gay rights to the right to get high.
Republicans and Democrats alike insist it's time to stop piling debt onto future generations, yet political observers say the electoral clout of seniors may prove the biggest obstacle to reining in government spending. And just as in the 1960s, when many older Americans stood on the sidelines of the civil rights and women's movements, polls show seniors are the least enthused about allowing gays to serve openly in the military or get married.
"On social policy, we have a generation that consumes a huge portion of the federal budget yet doesn't approve of other Americans receiving benefits," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "On cultural issues, there is a huge disconnect between retirees and much of the rest of the country."
The recent midterm election and the rollout of plans to take drastic steps to reduce trillions in federal debt underscore the distance.
Democrats got a shellacking on Nov. 2 in nearly every demographic group . But no group was as peeved at President Barack Obama and his party's priorities as voters over 65. Fueled by the tea party movement, which skews older and whiter than the general population, seniors voted for Republicans by a 21-point margin.
In 2008, elderly voters were the only age group to vote for Sen. John McCain in a year when young people turned out in force for Obama. This year, young people stayed home, giving seniors, who normally vote in high numbers anyway, even more say in the outcome.
"You really had a wave of the past, not a wave of the future," said American University professor Leonard Steinhorn, author of "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy." "This election did not represent the mood of the country. It represented the mood of the voters -- that's a truly different demographic."
Obama, the first African-American president, represents something older people "don't like culturally" and which encouraged them to come out en mass to vote, Steinhorn said. "The impact is that the voices of the younger generation, the future, tend to be washed over by the perspective of the older generation, people who are more rooted in the past" and more conservative positions.
Health care. Opposition to the new health care law is widespread but seniors are the most opposed.
In an article in New Yorker magazine titled "Greedy Geezers?" James Surowiecki writes of a "colossal irony" in a midterm election that saw seniors overwhelmingly reject Democrats over health care reform.
"The very people who currently enjoy the benefits of a subsidized, government-run insurance system are intent on keeping others from getting the same treatment," he wrote. "Opposing the new law while reaping the benefits of Medicare is essentially saying, 'I've got mine -- good luck getting yours.' "
Curtis Gans, director for the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said talk of so-called death panels and other scary -- and fictional -- scenarios prompted many seniors to react "out of fear."
"They're on fixed incomes and ... they don't want to lose their Medicare benefits," he said.
Yet Medicare spending, like overall health spending, is spiraling out of control. That has prompted tough questions about how to provide quality care while slowing the growth of spending in a program where one out of every four dollars is spent on the last year of life, even as more than 50 million Americans lack basic health insurance.
"It is said that with age comes wisdom. More typically it is a sense of vulnerability and need for deference as a validation of the contributions of their working years," Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said. "If the Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers in the administration had any sensitivity to those emotions, they would never have rolled out health insurance reform the way that they did."
Social Security. The chairmen of the bipartisan federal debt commission have called for big cuts in Social Security. Other deficit reduction plans also call for raising the retirement age and adjusting benefit formulas for future retirees.
A newly released poll of voters found that Democrats lost seniors by a historic 21 percent. Social Security -- which Democrats created and could always count on as an advantage among older voters -- no longer gives the party an edge.
All age groups strongly oppose cutting Social Security benefits, but the most intense opposition comes from seniors and those over 50 -- the two age groups least likely to see their own benefits slashed in current deficit-cutting plans.
Majorities of all age groups oppose raising the retirement age to 69, but the most amenable are those already collecting Social Security checks. Seniors oppose the idea by 58 percent versus 75 percent among those younger than 50 and most likely to see their working years extended. Older baby boomers also would likely be unaffected since most of the deficit-cutting plans now being considered wouldn't take effect until after they are gone.
Gay rights. On same-sex marriage and gays in the military, older Americans hold traditional views. While polls consistently show a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds favor legalizing gay marriage, support declines sharply with age, with the so-called "greatest generation" most opposed.
With Congress poised to vote on repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it returns from Thanksgiving break, 74-year-old John McCain is leading the opposition. A recent Pew Center study found all age groups now support allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but the margin is a mere 51 percent among seniors. Those under 50 approve by 65 percent.
Marijuana legalization. The defeat of California's Proposition 19 to legalize recreational use of marijuana also highlighted the age gap. Voters over 65 were most opposed to the initiative, and their view carried the day.
"People accept change up to a point, and when change is perceived as risk they back off. We saw that in the midterm election," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political scientist.
Older Americans weren't always so conservative or Republican -- a recent Gallup poll found the most conservative members of the GOP are 55 or older. Many of the parents of today's aging baby boomers weren't so bothered by government spending. Many of them are dead.
The generation "whose identity was forged in Roosevelt's New Deal era -- when many Americans saw the value of government in times of crisis -- is being replaced by a generation of elderly voters who were moved by Reagan-era conservatism," Zelizer said. "These elderly voters are still benefiting from the Roosevelt era, through Social Security and Medicare, so it makes these positions doubly striking and hypocritical."
Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Center, said most of today's seniors "were socialized to politics during a relatively more conservative period of the late 1940s and the 1950s," and that contributes to their world view.
While there will "always will be some people driving around with bumper stickers saying 'I'm spending my kid's inheritance,' you get that in all generations," said Donna Butts, a baby boomer who runs the group Generations United. "We need to do everything we can to promote the cohesion between generations -- to realize it's not a fight, it's a family. "
Gans said the concern and clout seniors show over economic issues doesn't mean they don't care about other generations or society as a whole.
"Their primary goal is to protect their own," he said, but "there's selfishness involved with everybody. Unfortunately, it's been a very long time since our politics had any sense of national duty or altruism."