There is a large group of Americans who can contribute even more substantively to the quality of life of all citizens if given greater access to do so.
"We the People."
That was the theme of the first night of last week's Democratic National Convention. I watched every minute of it over the course of those four days, and was really impressed with what I saw. In the midst of a pandemic and using an almost exclusively virtual format, the Democratic Party succeeded in focusing sharply on who we are as Americans in 2020, what our democracy has become, and what we as citizens need to do about it.
I was uplifted by an agenda that included the Roll Call of the States, in which viewers got to hear from residents in all parts of the country. We also heard moving stories told by individual Americans of African, Latino, Asian, Pacific Island, and Native descent describing the personal challenges they've faced over the past four years.
Democrats, Independents, and disaffected Republicans weighed in on the nature of today's politics and the qualities of the candidates running for office. Unemployed and part- and full-time working poor and middle-class people shared their financial concerns created by a crumbling economy.
People with little or no health insurance expressed fears of surviving COVID-19, not to mention being able to pay the medical bills that would follow. Veterans shared the broader patriotic meaning of their military service, and young people declared the need to save our planet from the disastrous effects of climate change.
It seems that every constituency was represented and given the opportunity to make its case for a change in leadership at the top.
Every constituency except one: Older Adults.
Don't get me wrong. Yes, the importance of protecting Social Security and Medicare came up numerous times. So did the cost of prescription drugs, the need for national long-term-care insurance, and the delivery delays of medicine and checks caused by the USPS. But that was the extent of the issues directly affecting the older population. As if being financially and physically needy are all that define us as human beings and Americans.
So much more could and should have been said by and about members of this significant—and ever-growing—American subpopulation. For example, a retired 60-year-old could have discussed the values of mentorship and volunteerism that so many of us provide. Someone age 70 or 80 could have touted the productive effects of hiring and retaining experienced elders in the workplace. And a 50-something could have cited statistics about entrepreneurship. All three could have made a powerful case against overt age discrimination and subtle and implicit ageism and for the value of everyone, regardless of age.
After all, according to a 2016 AARP report, "The amount of value driven by the 50-plus cohort in the US is huge, even viewed on a global scale. If the US Longevity Economy were to stand alone, it would, in GDP terms, be the third largest economy in the world—behind only the US and China and nearly $3.5 trillion larger than Japan." AARP also reported that in 2018, people ages 50 and older were responsible for 56 cents of every dollar spent in direct purchases.
The Democratic Party could place itself in even greater contrast to the Republican Party by publicly recognizing the power and potential of people in their later years and expanding its social justice platform beyond a focus on race, gender, sexual orientation, income, physical ability, and immigration to include age.
So why the glaring omission?
It's because such aging issues aren't glaring at all to most Americans. In fact, they're virtually invisible in political discourse. We older adults are visible only when our existence is seen as a drain on entitlement programs. But we're a significant voting constituency that rivals all others in politics.
Consider these statistics:
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (Table NC-EST2019-AGESEX), older adults ages 65+ compose 16% of the American population. If that group is expanded to include those ages 50+, the proportion grows to 36%. In contrast, consider the following population proportions by minority race: 18.5% Hispanic/Latino, 13.4% African American, 5.9% Asian, 1.3% Native American, 0.2% Pacific Island/Native Hawaiian. In addition, 5.5% of Americans are veterans, while 11.8% of Americans are living under the poverty level. In terms of political affiliation, as of August 12, 31% of registered American voters are Democrats, 26% are Republicans, and 41% are Independents.
So I'd say that a subpopulation of 36% (which will continue to grow for decades) is nothing to take for granted, let alone neglect or ignore. The cultural condition that keeps us out of the limelight is what a seminal 2015 FrameWorks Institute report calls "absent ageism." As the organization asserts: "A lack of attention to ageism keeps this issue off the public’s radar, and impedes attempts to address patterns of discrimination across the full spectrum of our society."
Absent ageism isn't a harmless oversight; it's a scourge that is causing pain, suffering, and yes, death. Look no farther than the disproportionate number of COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes and the triage questions regarding the rationing of ICU beds and ventilators for hospital patients based on their age.
The Democratic Party—the Republican Party, too—must realize that there is a large group of Americans who not only can benefit from sound, compassionate policies but also can contribute even more substantively to the quality of life of all citizens if given greater access to do so.
We're here and about to vote. We the Just-As-Valuable People. We the Future-American-Demographic People.
We the Older People.