It bugs me when marketers refer to "the over-50 crowd." Whether hawking online dating services or warning about the dangers of STDs, they seem to see us as one huge lump of aging humanity. It feels like we disappear as individuals. Sure, I'm over 50, but that isn't top of mind as I go about my day.
There's a similar tendency to stereotype American voters during election season, Dante Chinni, a journalist who directs the Patchwork Nation project at the Jefferson Institute, recently observed. Race. Ethnicity. Gender. Sexual orientation. Religion. ... Age.
As Chinni puts it, "Those demographic segments morph into cartoon characters that we write and talk about when we want to explain the electorate."
Chinni says he understands the compulsion to generalize. So do I. Phrases like "the 50-plus vote" and "older voters" riddle the Election 2012 blog.
It's a much-coveted segment of the voting population - perhaps the most coveted, considering that it's expected to account for half of the turnout this fall. But it's also a highly diverse segment. How could it not be when:
- It spans three generations of voters who came of age under very different social and economic circumstances.
- Households headed by someone 50-plus hold 75 percent of the nation's wealth, yet half of Americans 65-plus rely on Social Security for at least 50 percent of family income and almost a quarter for at least 90 percent of family income.
- The majority of older Americans live within major metropolitan areas, but the older people make up most of the population in non-metropolitan or rural areas.
Even when you anticipate solidarity on an issue like "saving Medicare as we know it," there's a broad range of ideas not only about how to save it but also for what we know it as and for whom we're saving it.
Just read the comments below any Election 2012 blog post. All sorts of opinions fly - and no holds are barred. One recent exchange that stooped to name-calling prompted this observation: "Labels applied pejoratively do not lead to problem resolution... Labels degenerate into stereotypes."
That's a valuable reminder during election season. "Simplistic election-year stereotypes don't just foster misperceptions of what is going on in the campaign and the electorate," Chinni says. "They also do a pretty poor job of explaining what most of us want to know once all the ballots are counted. Not who won - but why?"
I second that motion. - Kim Keister