WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, Americans 45 and older make up a
majority of the voting-age population, giving older Americans wider
influence in elections as the U.S. stands divided over curtailing Medicare
and other benefits for seniors.
Along with the information about the growing influence of older adults,
preliminary census estimates also show a decline in the number of married
couples with children, slight growth in household size and a rapid rise in
the number of Mexicans.
The findings, based on the latest publicly available government data, offer
a preview of trends that will be detailed in the next round of 2010 census
results being released this month that focus on age, household relationships
and racial subgroups.
As a whole, the numbers point to a rapidly graying nation driven largely by
the nation’s 78 million baby boomers, who are now between the ages of 46 and
65 and looking ahead to retirement.
“The center of American politics gets older,” said E. Mark Braden, a former
chief counsel to the Republican National Committee who now advises elected
officials and state legislatures. “Given the current fiscal concerns, it’s
going to be a test case whether Republicans or Democrats can talk about
entitlement reform without getting killed” politically.
Currently, there are roughly 119 million people 45 and older who make up 51
percent of the voting-age population, with Americans 55 and older
representing a large bulk of that group. The new majority share is up from
46 percent in 2000 and 42 percent in 1990.
The preliminary figures are based on the Census Bureau’s 2009 population
estimates as well as the 2009 American Community Survey, which samples 3
million U.S. households. The 2010 census surveyed the entire nation.
Broken down by subgroups, older boomers ages 55-64 were the fastest-growing
group since 2000, jumping 43 percent to approximately 35 million. They were
followed by seniors 85 and older, who increased 33 percent to more than 5.5
million, due largely to medical advances that have increased life spans.
The number of people ages 45-54 also rose sharply, up 18 percent to 45
million as young boomers moved into the ranks.
Based on actual election turnout, which is higher for older Americans,
census data show that baby boomers and seniors ages 45 and older represent
about 60 percent of voters in national races, judging by the 2008
presidential race. Nearly 1 out of 2 voters is 50 or older.
“Boomers have now crossed the line between thinking about Medicare and
Social Security as an issue for their parents, to being worried about it for
themselves,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution
who did a broad analysis of available census data. “More so than their
parents, boomers face increasing costs of medical care and the risk that
government pensions will need to substitute for downturns in their 401k
“Their interest in the viability of Medicare should be priority one for
politicians seeking office, especially in aging regions of the country,” he
The census numbers come amid spirited debate over federal spending cuts in
the wake of ballooning government debt. The Republican-controlled House last
month approved a plan that would replace Medicare with a government payment
individuals would use to buy private insurance. The measure would affect
only those younger than 55; people that age or higher would continue to be
covered by the current Medicare system. For the younger group, health care
would ultimately cost them more.
The GOP plan is partly a bet that the key voting bloc of older Americans
will accept Medicare changes if they are not affected. So far, however, the
heaviest resistance has come from older people who are opposed to cuts that
will affect their children and grandchildren or that conceivably could be
expanded later to include them. Americans 55 and older now represent about
32 percent of the voting-age population.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he will hold a vote
on the House proposal, challenging Senate Republicans to take a position
that could alienate older voters. In Maine, which has the nation’s highest
median age at 42, Republican Sen. Susan Collins already has come out against
the GOP plan, and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe has voiced doubts,
specifically citing the potential impact on the state’s aging residents.
More than half the states — about 28 — saw population declines over the last
decade in the under-45 age group. Those states are mostly in the Northeast
and Midwest and include Massachusetts, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, New York and
At the same time, 12 states primarily in the fast-growing South and West —
including Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina — had
increases of at least one-third in their 45-64 age group, which include
mostly baby boomers. Those states’ median ages were somewhat lower due to
immigration of Hispanics, who are more likely to raise families, and
movement of young adults into their states.
Nationally, the median age climbed to about 36.8 from 35.3 in 2000.
David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP, a group representing
Americans 50 and older, mentioned the increasing focus on older voters as
public debate shifts more to entitlement reform. When it comes to Medicare
and Social Security, older Americans have stronger feelings about keeping
programs fully intact than 30-year-olds who aren’t thinking about retirement
or who aren’t very familiar with the programs, he said.
Certner also cited the fast growth of the 85-plus population, evident in
states such as Florida, Iowa and Pennsylvania, which he said puts additional
financial pressure on baby boomers to support elderly parents as well as
children. A recent Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll found that 44
percent of boomers had little or no faith they’ll have enough money for
“One of the biggest issues in the last election was the protection of
Medicare, and it’s setting up to be one of the biggest in the next one,” he
On the topic of families, the number of married couples with children
dropped about 5.7 percent to 23.4 million, or roughly 20 percent of U.S.
households. That’s down from a share of 23.5 percent in 2000 and 43 percent
The decreases in traditional families were seen in 42 states plus the
District of Columbia, while the remaining eight — Nevada, Utah, Idaho,
Arizona, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia — saw increases. Those
eight states generally have a higher number of either immigrants or Mormon
In contrast, non-family households made up of single people such as seniors
living alone, or opposite-sex or same-sex partners without children, jumped
13 percent to roughly 38 million. Married couples with no kids, which
include younger couples and older empty-nesters, rose 9 percent to more than
“In American politics, there’s a nostalgia element when invoking terms such
as ‘family values.’ But that term is out of touch with the way many
Americans live, given demographic changes such as gay marriage” and
cohabitation, said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public
affairs at Princeton University.
Preliminary census numbers show that unmarried partners made up 6.5 million,
or nearly 6 percent of U.S. households. Those figures include roughly
581,300, or a half-percent of households, composed of same-sex unmarried
couples. Measured by shares, the District of Columbia ranked highest for
same-sex unmarried households at 2 percent.
Official 2010 data on unmarried partner households will be released
beginning in June, followed by figures on same-sex spouses in November.
—Married couples with children dropped since 2000 to an all-time low of
roughly 1 in 5 households, surpassed by empty-nesters, childless couples,
singles and unmarried partners.
—After a decades-long decline, average household size ticked higher to 2.63
from 2.59 in 2000. That’s due mostly to the growth of the Hispanic
population, which tends to have larger families, as well as some recent
“doubling up” of adult children moving back in with parents during the
—Mexicans increased by roughly 50 percent over the last decade to roughly 32
million and now make up close to 66 percent of all Hispanics. They were
followed by Puerto Ricans, at more than 4.4 million or 9 percent share;
Cubans at 1.7 million or 3.5 percent share; and other Hispanics, at 10.5
million or 22 percent.
—Based on total population, people 45 and older represent 39 percent of U.S.
residents, up from 34 percent in 2000. People 65 and older now make up
roughly 13 percent and seniors 85 and older about 2 percent. The 65-plus age
group will make up nearly 1 in 5 Americans by 2030, after the youngest
boomers turn 65.
—Utah had the youngest population with a median age of 29.
—Chinese are the most common Asians in the U.S., at 3.2 million, or roughly
23 percent share. But people from India are the fastest-growing, at 2.6
million or nearly a 20 percent share. Indians now hold the biggest Asian
share in about 23 states compared to 12 states for Chinese. They are
followed in numbers by Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese.