Older workers are voting with an eye on the economy

Recent polls have shown that older Americans and women appear to have turned against President Trump, and the reasons aren’t hard to grasp. The administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially deadly for older Americans, while women have borne the brunt of the economic downturn, with greater job losses and caregiving responsibilities.

One factor has received less attention: Older Americans, too, have been hard hit in the economic downturn. Senior women (women ages 65 and older) have seen a steep decline in employment—almost as steep as that of young women just entering the labor force (see Table 1). Senior men also saw a steep decline in employment early in the pandemic but rebounded faster than senior women.

Table 1

Employment declines by gender and age, February--September 2020

Gender Age Change in employment
Men 16–24 -8.9%
25–34 -5.0%
35–44 -2.7%
45–54 -5.1%
55–64 -4.6%
65+ -3.0%
Women 16–24 -10.0%
25–34 -8.9%
35–44 -5.2%
45–54 -7.2%
55–64 -5.9%
65+ -9.3%

Source: Author’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey microdata. 

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Older workers approaching retirement—those ages 55–64—have fared better than seniors, but worse than in previous recessions, when their job losses tended to be small compared with those of younger workers. During the Great Recession, employment in this age group actually trended upward, though not as a share of the population, based on U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey data. This group still supports the president, but by a smaller margin than in 2016. These workers’ economic anxieties partly explain why Trump has lost Republicans’ usual advantage with voters on the handling of the economy, despite his attempts to claim credit for a pre-pandemic recovery that took off under the Obama administration.

The president seems to have been counting on stereotypical responses from older voters, who are supposed to be narrowly concerned with Social Security, Medicare, and the value of their 401(k)s. He appears to have taken their support for granted, messing with Social Security’s financing and assuming older workers would conflate a resilient stock market with a strong economy. Except for a few wealthy households, however, older Americans rely on earned income and Social Security more than investment returns and have good reason to be concerned about where the economy is headed. Older workers, for example, are overrepresented among small business and government employees, sectors that will languish without another stimulus and relief package that Senate Republicans have been holding up.