Older Americans are reliable, high-turnout voters and thus are of significant importance in elections. It is not surprising, then, to see news headlines proclaiming "Biden and Trump Key In On Seniors in Campaign's Final Weeks" or "Trump's Coronavirus Remarks Weigh on Minds of Senior Voters." But exactly who are "seniors"? The answer to that question depends on exactly how pollsters and other analysts decide to classify people into age groups, and that is by no means as simple as it might seem.
Age is what statisticians call a continuous variable -- with an essentially infinite number of values that allow one to categorize or label a person's age in many different ways. A baby's age, for example, is often labeled in terms of the days or months since birth. As humans get older, years since birth becomes the common age identifier, although this is a broad categorization. (Two people who are "35 years old" can be as much as 12 months apart in age if one just celebrated their 35th birthday and the other's 36th birthday is the next day.)
Gallup has occasionally been able to analyze data from large tracking samples by using each individual yearly age point, such as this example, which graphs party identification for each age point by year, from 18 to 85. But typically, pollsters and social scientists don't have the advantage of large samples and must resort to putting age into broader categories in order to have large enough samples in each group for analytical purposes and for ease of interpretation and understanding. The most commonly used such age groupings are 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65+.
The rationale for using these four age categories is fairly arbitrary, but there is some historical rationale for the use of 65+ as the oldest category -- the group most commonly defined as "seniors."
Germany adopted age 65 as the starting point for receiving old-age benefits more than a century ago. When the U.S. developed old-age assistance programs in the 1930s (Social Security) and the 1960s (Medicare), 65 years of age was also established as the age of eligibility for both programs. In more recent years, the age at which people become eligible for Social Security has changed and become more flexible. But the concept that age 65 is the dividing point between younger and older adults has been well-established and has become the norm in much survey research today.
Another Approach Based on Birth Year
There is a different approach to age grouping based not on an individual's age at any particular point, but rather on the individual's year of birth, grouping people into generational cohorts in which they remain throughout their lives.
The two most famous such cohorts are the baby boomers and the millennials, both groups that represent periods with relatively high birth rates. Individuals born between 1946 and 1964 comprise the baby-boom generation, and those born between 1980 and 1996, the millennial. Like a pig being swallowed by a python, people in both of these groups have moved up the age range year after year and decade after decade. At the end of 1965, baby boomers were between 1 and 19 years old. Today, baby boomers -- the same people -- are between 56 and 74. At the end of 1997, Millennials were between 1 and 17. Today, the same people are 24 to 40.
Researchers have filled in the blanks around these two generations with Generations X and Z. Generation X encompasses anyone born in the years between the millennial and baby-boom generations (that is, born between 1965 and 1979); and Generation Z, the group that followed millennials (born between 1997 and 2010 to 2015, with the endpoint not yet firmly established).
Then, central to my concern in this essay, there is the (dwindling) group of those born before the baby boomers (in 1945 or earlier), whom Gallup calls traditionalists and other researchers call The Silent Generation. These traditionalists are today 75 years of age and older.
Difficult to Sync Up the Two Ways of Approaching Older Americans
As noted, pollsters' typical "senior" category of choice remains 65+, a group that includes some of the baby-boom generation and the entire traditionalists generation. Nine years from now, in 2029, we will have a temporarily tidy situation in which the group of those aged 65 and older will align perfectly with the combined baby-boom and traditionalist generations. But for now, the two approaches -- looking at those currently 65+ and looking at generational cohorts -- produce different results, but both can be useful in studying the impact of age on variables of interest. In a 2019 report on attitudes about marijuana, for example, my colleague Jeff Jones fruitfully looks at age relationships using both methods. And, as will be seen below, baby boomers do appear to have developed a particular political orientation that they carry through with them as they age -- a finding that, combined with the more traditional 65+ analysis, helps us more fully understand the attitudes of seniors in today's election landscape.
A Large Age Group
The 65 and older "senior" category is large and includes people whose ages can differ by more than 30 years. This makes the seniors category bigger than any of the three other commonly used age groups, and one that includes people who were born at very different times in our nation's history and thus with different life experiences.
Indeed, as noted, when we have adequate sample sizes to look in depth at this large 65-and-older age group, we find interesting political differences by age segment within the seniors group. Basically, what I would call "aging baby-boom seniors" -- those 65-74 -- are significantly more Democratic in orientation than the "traditionalist seniors" aged 75 and up.
One example of these differences comes from analysis of a large sample of over 15,000 people Gallup has interviewed so far this year. As a whole, 49% of this group approve of the job Donald Trump is doing as president, while 49% disapprove. The younger half of the seniors group (aging baby boomers), however, are more negative about Trump, with 47% approving and 51% disapproving. Among the older group (those 75-84), Trump's job approval is net positive, with 53% approving and 46% disapproving. In other words, the baby-boom segment of the large "senior group" is less positive about Trump than those who are older, a fact that is lost when the group is looked at in totality.
This more Democratic tilt of the older cohort of baby boomers is not new. I looked back at Gallup tracking from 2010 and isolated this same group of boomers, who were then 55 to 64 years of age. At that point, this group averaged 45% approval rating for Democratic President Barack Obama, significantly higher than the 40% approval rating among traditionalists who were then 65 to 74 years in age. In short, the older baby-boom group appears to be a consistently more Democratic group than the traditionalists, both then and now.
An even more dramatic difference is evident from an analysis of recent 2020 presidential horse-race data from Pew Research, based on a large sample of over 10,000 interviews with registered voters using their American Trends Panel sample. Pew reported that "seniors" (65+) were split down the middle in terms of their vote choice -- 49% for Biden and 49% for Trump (exactly the same as Gallup's split among those 65+ on Trump job approval). Overall, this showed the seniors group as significantly more likely to vote for Trump than the sample as a whole.
Pew researchers kindly made available the internal split between the aging baby-boom and traditionalist segments of the 65+ group. These data show that among those 65-74, Biden leads Trump by 51% to 46% (+5 in favor of Biden). Among the traditionalists, those 75 and older, Trump leads Biden by 55% to 43% (+12 in favor of Trump).
Thus, the vote among "seniors" as a whole is actually composed of groups with significantly different views on the election. Although aging baby boomers are still not as likely to vote for Biden as those under 50, they do break for him, while the older group is tilted toward Trump. A campaign strategy focused on seniors could thus take on a different dimension using this knowledge, along with the facts that there are more 65- to 74-year-olds today than 75- to 84-year-olds, and that the younger group is also more likely to vote. Biden's campaign in the final days leading up to the election could thus focus on encouraging turnout among the "younger seniors" who have more of an underlying propensity to support his campaign, while Trump could focus more on trying to change the minds of the younger seniors group, or focus on turnout efforts among older seniors.
Pollsters whose surveys are based on the typical sample size of about 1,000 respondents are faced with the necessity of grouping their respondents into broad categories in order to meaningfully and reliably interpret age differences in attitudes and behavior. This typically includes a very broad 65-and-older category of "seniors," which in turn means that this group is treated as a single unit, even though there are interesting political differences between younger seniors and older seniors, as we have seen.
Reporting on these types of differences within the "seniors" category will remain difficult unless survey researchers are able to rely on much larger samples sizes in individual surveys (as Pew does using its large panel surveys), or researchers rely on combining individual surveys in order to create large aggregates (usually not possible when the objective is to provide estimates of time-sensitive public attitudes). But it is good to be aware that "seniors" as a group today are hardly monolithic, particularly in terms of their approach to politics.