Education, Political Behavior, and Voting

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Education, Political Behavior, and Voting


Educational attainment influences employment and socioeconomic status, which in turn affect the quality of life of older adults. Higher levels of education are often associated with greater earning capacity, higher standards of living, and better overall health status.

As of 2004 nearly three-quarters (73%) of the older population had earned high school diplomas, and 19% had obtained undergraduate college degrees. (See Figure 5.1.) These figures are in contrast to those from 1965, when just 23% had earned high school diplomas and only 5% were college graduates.

Even though educational attainment has increased among older adults, significant differences remain between racial and ethnic groups. Among adults aged sixty-five and older in 2004, 78% of non-Hispanic whites and 65% of Asians had graduated from high school, compared to 53% of African-Americans and 38% of Hispanics. (See Figure 5.2.) Older Asians were the most likely to have graduated from college (30%), followed by older non-Hispanic whites (20%); just 11% of African-Americans and 8% of Hispanics aged sixty-five and older had earned bachelor's degrees.

Baby boomersthe people born between 1946 and 1964 who will comprise the next generation of older adultshave more education than any previous generation. Table 5.1 shows that in 2006 about 88% of adults aged forty-five to fifty-nine (the range roughly corresponding to the baby boomers) were high school graduates, whereas 80.5% of adults aged sixty-five to sixty-nine and 77% of adults aged seventy to seventy-four had graduated from high school. Approximately 32% of forty-five- to fifty-nine-year-olds held bachelor's degrees or higher; among adults aged sixty-five to seventy-four this figure was closer to 27%.

Lifelong Learning

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
Mohandas Gandhi

Campuses are graying as a growing number of older people head back to school. Older adults, both working and retired, are major participants in programs once called adult educationcollege courses that do not lead to a formal degree. Older adults are also increasingly attending two- and four-year colleges to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as taking personal enrichment classes and courses that are sponsored by community senior centers and parks and recreation facilities.

In 2005 people aged fifty-five and older accounted for 63% of overall participation in adult education programs. (See Table 5.2.) Older adults have the time and resources to seek learning for personal and social reasons. Some universities allow older people to audit courses (take classes without receiving credit toward a degree) for reduced or waived tuition and fees.

Older adults' motivations for returning to school have changed over time. Even though they once may have taken courses primarily for pleasure, today's older students are likely to return to school for work-related adult education. They are learning new skills, retraining for new careers, or enhancing their existing skills to remain competitive in their fields. Homemakers displaced by divorce or widowhood are often seeking education and training to enable them to reenter the workforce.

Forty-four percent of adults participated in some type of formal education from 2004 to 2005. Among adults aged forty-five to fifty-four and fifty-five to sixty-four, 48% and 40%, respectively, took part in such education, whereas 23% of people aged sixty-five and older did so. (See Table 5.2.) Adults aged forty-five and older who participated in such education were much more likely to take work-related courses as opposed to getting a college degree, which was more likely among those age sixteen to forty-four.

The types of education older adults pursue varies with age. Table 5.2 shows that students aged fifty-five to sixty-four were divided between work-related course-work (27%) and personal-interest courses (21%), whereas those aged sixty-five and older were much more likely to be enrolled in personal interest courses (19%) than work-related courses (5%). Older adults enrolled in work-related education or training spent just as much time in the classroom as younger adults. For example, about the same percentage of adults aged sixty-five and older (21%) devoted fifty-one hours or more to work-related classroom instruction as did adults aged twenty-five to thirty-four (21%), forty-five to fifty-four (22%), and fifty-five to sixty-four (21%). (See Table 5.3.)


Elderhostel (2007, is a nonprofit organization that provides learning adventures for people fifty-five and older. Founded in 1975, it provided educational opportunities to nearly 170,000 older adults in 2004. Approximately eight thousand Elderhostel programs a year are conducted in ninety countries. The programs are diverse and range from three- to five-day classes to field trips and cultural excursions. Traditional programs provide older adults with opportunities to study diverse cultures, explore ancient histories, study literature and art, and learn about modern peoples and issues. Some Elderhostel participants attend programs held on local college and university campuses, whereas others embark on more extensive programs that involve transcontinental travel.

Adventure programs feature outdoor sports such as walking, hiking, camping, kayaking, and biking. The programs combine adventure and learning. For example, a bicycle tour of the Netherlands also includes instruction about the country's history, art, and people. Shipboard programs explore history, art, ecology, and culture while aboard a floating classroom.

Service-learning programs involve both education and hands-on work to serve the needs of a community. Older adults conduct wildlife or marine research, tutor school children, and build affordable housing. The organization also offers a series of intergenerational programs in which older adults and their grandchildren explore subjects that appeal to both young and old, including dinosaurs, hot-air ballooning, and space travel.


Rapid technological change has intensified the need for computer and information management skills and ongoing training of the workforce. The growing importance of knowledge- and information-based jobs has created a workforce that is rapidly becoming accustomed to continuous education, training, and retraining throughout one's work life.

Computer technology, especially use of the Internet, has also gained importance in Americans' lives outside of work, facilitating communication via e-mail and enabling interactions and transactions that once required travel now to occur in their homes. Examples include online banking and shopping, e-mail communication with physicians and other health-care providers, and participation in online support groups.

Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in Digital Divisions (October 5, 2005,, reports increasing Internet use by older adults in 2005more than two-thirds (67%) of adults aged fifty to sixty-four and more than one-quarter (26%) of adults aged sixty-five and older were online. Fox observes that adults aged sixty-five and older are not only the least likely demographic group to have an Internet connection but also much less likely to have high-speed connections, relying instead on slower, dial-up connections. Just one-third of older adults reported having high-speed or broadband connections in their homes, compared to more than half of younger (aged eighteen to sixty-four) home Internet users.

In Older Americans and the Internet (March 25, 2004,, Fox notes that older adults are not only

High school graduate statusBachelor's degree status
All races and both sexesTotalTotal PercentNot high school graduate PercentHigh school graduate or higher PercentTotal PercentLess than bachelor's degree PercentBachelor's degree or higher Percent
15 years and over233,194100.020.179.9100.076.024.0
15 to 17 years13,344100.098.41.6100.0100.0
18 to 19 years7,572100.042.757.3100.099.90.1
20 to 24 years20,393100.013.286.8100.088.511.5
25 to 29 years20,138100.013.686.4100.071.628.4
30 to 34 years19,343100.012.587.5100.068.531.5
35 to 39 years20,771100.012.088.0100.067.432.6
40 to 44 years22,350100.011.788.3100.070.429.6
45 to 49 years22,518100.011.288.8100.071.528.5
50 to 54 years20,279100.011.788.3100.069.730.3
55 to 59 years17,827100.011.288.8100.069.130.9
60 to 64 years13,153100.014.785.3100.073.226.8
65 to 69 years10,231100.019.580.5100.077.822.2
70 to 74 years8,323100.023.077.0100.079.820.2
75 years and over16,951100.028.971.1100.082.517.5
18 years and over219,849100.015.484.6100.074.525.5
15 to 24 years41,309100.046.253.8100.094.35.7
25 years and over191,884100.014.585.5100.072.028.0
15 to 64 years197,689100.019.380.7100.075.124.9
65 years and over35,505100.024.875.2100.080.519.5
All races and male
15 years and over113,163100.021.178.9100.075.424.6
15 to 17 years6,817100.098.81.2100.0100.0
18 to 19 years3,801100.046.853.2100.0100.0
20 to 24 years10,312100.015.085.0100.091.09.0
25 to 29 years10,185100.015.684.4100.074.725.3
30 to 34 years9,642100.013.586.5100.071.029.0
35 to 39 years10,320100.013.886.2100.069.330.7
40 to 44 years11,051100.012.987.1100.071.328.7
45 to 49 years11,051100.011.988.1100.070.529.5
50 to 54 years9,922100.012.187.9100.068.831.2
55 to 59 years8,633100.011.288.8100.065.334.7
60 to 64 years6,243100.014.885.2100.068.731.3
65 to 69 years4,782100.019.680.4100.073.526.5
70 to 74 years3,743100.021.978.1100.073.526.5
75 years and over6,659100.028.671.4100.075.624.4
18 years and over106,346100.016.183.9100.073.826.2
15 to 24 years20,930100.048.151.9100.095.64.4
25 years and over92,233100.015.085.0100.070.829.2
15 to 64 years97,978100.020.679.4100.075.624.4
65 years and over15,185100.024.175.9100.074.425.6

going online in record numbers but also they are logging on as frequently as younger users. Older users are as likely as younger ones to go online daily and to use e-mail. Almost all older users (94%) have sent or received e-mail, compared to 91% of all Internet users. Older adults have also learned to use search engines to perform research online. More than three-quarters (76%) reported using a search engine to find information, compared to 80% of all Internet users.

Along with e-mail, instant messaging, and using search engines to seek information, older Internet users go online to read news, especially political news, and to look for health information and religious or spiritual material.


Video games are also popular among older adults. For some, the console game versions of their once-favorite sports help them to stay "in the game," even when injury, disability, or illness prevent them from actually participating in tennis, bowling, or golf. Others feel that playing video games helps them to exercise their brains, eye-hand coordination, and reflexes. Still others simply find video games as diverting and entertaining as do younger players.

In "Video Games Conquer Retirees" (New York Times, March 30, 2007), Seth Schiesel reports that the Norwegian Cruise Line, which caters largely to older adults, and Erickson Retirement Communities, which houses nineteen thousand residents on eighteen campuses, had installed the Nintendo Wii game systems. Game sites and publishers observe that older adults not only play video games more often than younger gamers but also spend more time playing per session. In "Boomers

High school graduate statusBachelor's degree status
All races and both sexesTotalTotal PercentNot high shcool graduate PercentHigh school graduate or higher PercentTotal PercentLess than bachelor's degree PercentBachelor's or higher Percent
A dash () represents zero or rounds to zero.
*Plus armed forces living off post or with their families on post.
All races and Female
15 years and over120,031100.019.280.8100.076.523.5
15 to 17 years6,527100.098.02.0100.099.90.1
18 to 19 years3,771100.038.561.5100.099.80.2
20 to 24 years10,082100.011.488.6100.086.014.0
25 to 29 years9,953100.011.588.5100.068.431.6
30 to 34 years9,701100.011.588.5100.066.133.9
35 to 39 years10,451100.010.289.8100.065.634.4
40 to 44 years11,298100.010.589.5100.069.530.5
45 to 49 years11,467100.010.589.5100.072.527.5
50 to 54 years10,357100.011.288.8100.070.529.5
55 to 59 years9,194100.011.288.8100.072.627.4
60 to 64 years6,910100.014.785.3100.077.322.7
65 to 69 years5,449100.019.480.6100.081.618.4
70 to 74 years4,580100.023.976.1100.084.915.1
75 years and over10,292100.029.270.8100.087.013.0
18 years and over113,504100.014.785.3100.075.124.9
15 to 24 years20,379100.044.255.8100.093.07.0
25 years and over99,651100.014.185.9100.073.126.9
15 to 64 years99,711100.018.082.0100.074.725.3
65 years and over20,320100.025.474.6100.085.114.9

Embrace Casual Games to Keep Sharp" (Marketingvox. com, April 5, 2007), Beatrice Spaine, the marketing director of, a Web site that offers a variety of games, asserts that baby boomers are its most rapidly growing group of users and opines that the site offers a virtual community for older adults that is not unlike the kind of community has become for teens and younger adults.


Older adults are vitally interested in politics and government, and they are especially interested in the issues that directly influence their lives, including eligibility for and reform to Social Security as well as benefits and coverage by Medicare. The AARP characterizes Americans aged seventy and older as generally conservative on economic and social issues. In Political Behavior and Values across the Generations: A Summary of Selected Findings (July 2004,, a report on a survey of Americans aged forty and older about their political behavior and values, Jeffrey Love of AARP Knowledge Management notes that about one-third of Americans aged seventy and older said they have become more conservative on economic, social, foreign policy, moral, and legal issues as they have aged. Large majorities of these older Americans supported prayer in school, the death penalty, stricter prison sentences, and restricting civil liberties to deter terrorism. Even though they supported environmental regulation and welfare programs for low-income populations, they opposed legal abortions and gay marriage. Unlike some of the conservative policy makers they supported, most adults aged seventy and older opposed proposals to privatize Social Security and Medicare.

According to Love, the thirty million older adults aged fifty-eight to sixty-nine shared the conservative sentiments of adults aged seventy and older, especially regarding issues such as school prayer, stricter prison sentences, and curbing civil liberties to deter terrorist threats. Love notes, however, that the younger-old were more likely to support legalized abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage than the population aged seventy and older. They described themselves as more politically active than the older cohort (a group of individuals that shares a common characteristic such as birth years and is studied over time), and one-quarter said they would like to become more politically active.

Love indicates that the seventy-eight million forty- to fifty-seven-year-olds were slightly less conservative than adults aged seventy and older, but about 40% claimed to

Formal adult education activities
CharacteristicNumber of adults (thousands)Any formal adult educationESL classesBasic skills/GED classesPart-time college degree program a Part-time vocational degree/diploma program bAppreniceshipWork-related coursesPersonal-interest courses
#Estimate rounds to 0 or 0 cases in sample.
aIncludes those enrolled only part-time in college or university degree or certificate programs or those enrolled through a combination of part-time and full-time enrollments in the 12 months prior to the interview.
bIncludes those enrolled only part-time in vocational or technical diploma, degree, certificate programs or those enrolled through a combination of part-time and full-time enrollments in the 12 months prior to the interview.
Note: Details may not sum to totals because of rounding. ESL is English as a Second Language. GED is General Equivalency Diploma.
16 to 24 years25,10453269232127
25 to 34 years38,78452227233222
35 to 44 years42,89049114113422
45 to 54 years41,84048##3113720
55 to 64 years29,06840##11#2721
65 years or older33,92223#####519
White, non-Hispanic146,61446#14112922
Black, non-Hispanic23,46746#24122724
Asian or Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic7,08044216112423
Other race, non-Hispanic8,34639#14122320
Highest education level completed
Less than a high school diploma/equivalent31,0182227#11411
High school diploma/equivalent64,33433112121716
Some college/vocational/associate's degree58,545511#6213125
Bachelor's degree37,24460##61#4429
Graduate or professional education or degree20,466661#7115130
Household income
$20,000 or less34,67028122121116
$20,001 to $35,00035,83936224111817
$35,001 to $50,00033,37642212112322
$50,001 to $75,00047,11448##5113321
$75,001 or more60,60758115213927
Employment status
Employed full-time106,38953115224020
Employed part-time27,09053127113229
Unemployed and looking for work9,94138263221423
Not in the labor force68,1872811211620
Trade and labor37,58534222231913

have become more conservative on a variety of issues as they have aged. Even though they shared many of the same political beliefs and values held by older adults, they diverged on key social issues. Love finds that more boomers supported legal abortion and stem cell research and that they were twice as likely as adults aged seventy and older to support gay marriage.

Another difference between the two cohorts is the way in which they viewed entitlements and obligations.

Number of adults (thousands)Total instructional hours across courses or training
Characteristic10 hours or fewer1125 hours2650 hours51 hours or more
Note: Work-related courses or training are defined as any formal courses or training taken in the 12 months prior to the interview that had an instructor present and were related to job or career, whether or not the respondent had a job when he or she took them. Information was collected on up to four work-related courses or training taken in the 12 months prior to the interview. If an adult took more than four courses or training, four were sampled for data collection. Time spent in work-related courses or training was weighted to account for the sub-sampling of courses/training. Details may not sum to totals because of rounding.
16 to 24 years5,33243191622
25 to 34 years12,28332252321
35 to 44 years14,47232251825
45 to 54 years15,28934242022
55 to 64 years7,85129282221
65 years or older1,77835242021
White, non-Hispanic42,60432252123
Black, non-Hispanic6,33944181720
Asian or Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic1,71928322218
Other race, non-Hispanic.1,95732212126
Highest education level completed
Less than a high school diploma/equivalent1,30937281719
High school diploma/equivalent10,64341211522
Some college/vocational/associate's degree18,36539241720
Bachelor's degree16,32228262423
Graduate or professional education or degree10,36623262526
Household income
$20,000 or less3,68343231320
$20,001 to $35,0006,29437231921
$35,001 to $50,0007,83934212322
$50,001 to $75,00015,53738251720
$75,001 or more23,65128262224
Employment status
Employed full-time43,08331242223
Employed part-time8,68444261317
Unemployed and looking for work1,36629212129
Not in the labor force3,87133301720
Trade and labor7,02837191827

Love finds that boomers were more likely to count additional issues, such as provision of health-care and social programs, among the "definite responsibilities" of government, but boomers did not want to be taxed for these entitlements. Boomers were also less likely to feel that they owed their country anything, such as military service or taxes, in return for government programs and protection.

Love indicates that boomers were more inclined to view political participation as a means to achieving personal ends, and less for larger goals. Such self-interest was evident in this generation's feelings about entitlements; even though they were more liberal on selected social issues than adults aged seventy and older, this did not necessarily translate into support for social welfare programs or traditional entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Boomers were less likely than adults aged seventy and older to support welfare programs for lower-income people and far more likely to favor privatizing Social Security and Medicare.

Love predicts that when boomers become older adults they will continue to behave much as they have throughout their lives. He contends that they will be

Total citizenTotal registeredTotal voted
State and agePopulation 18 and overTotalPercent citizen (18+)TotalPercent registered (18+)TotalPercent voted (18+)
United States
18 to 2427,80824,89989.514,33451.511,63941.9
25 to 4482,13371,23186.749,37160.142,84552.2
45 to 6471,01467,18494.651,65972.747,32766.6
65 to 7418,36317,75996.714,12576.913,01070.8

"socially active but skeptical about politics; concerned with their communities or other things that directly affect them; results oriented with more regard for producing benefits than for achieving higher goals or fullfilling moral imperatives."


In "Transforming Aging: The Civic Engagement of Adults 55+" (Public Policy and Aging Report, fall 2006), Sabrina L. Reilly describes an emerging "civic engagement movement" in which older adults will continue to use their talents, skills, time, and energy to contribute to American life, rather than becoming isolated and disengaged when they retire from the workforce. Reilly asserts that "when mobilized, organized effectively, placed in the right roles, and supported in the right way, adults 55+ can have an immensely positive if not transformative impact on complex problems."

Reilly also lauds civic engagement initiatives already under way: the National Council on Aging RespectAbility, which seeks to develop leadership-level roles in nonprofit organizations for adults aged fifty-five and older, and the Experience Corp, a project sponsored by Civic Ventures, a think tank that aims to generate ideas and programs to help society achieve the greatest return on experience. Experience Corp matches adults aged fifty-five and older with at-risk children. The older adults tutor and mentor children in urban public schools and after-school programs, teaching them to read and develop the confidence and skills to succeed in school and in life.

Voting Behavior

Americans are more likely to vote as they get older. U.S. Census Bureau data reveal that in 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, 76.9% of adults aged sixty-five to seventy-four and 76.8% of adults aged seventy-five and older were registered to vote, compared to 51.5% of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds and 60.1% of twenty-five- to forty-four-year-olds. (See Table 5.4.) In the November 2004 elections the youngest group also had the lowest voting rate (41.9%), whereas the highest rate (70.8%) was among sixty-five- to seventy-four-year-olds. The voting rates of those aged forty-five to sixty-four and seventy-five and older were 66.6% and 66.7%, respectively.

Party Affiliation

Love shows that party affiliation and voting along party lines was strongest among adults aged seventy and older. When asked, "Do you always vote for candidates from the same political party, nearly always vote for candidates from the same party, or do you switch parties?" more than half (51%) of adults aged seventy and older said they always or nearly always vote for candidates from the same party. In contrast, 47% of voters aged forty to fifty-seven and 43% of those aged fifty-eight to sixty-nine said they always or nearly always vote for candidates from the same party.

Love also finds the fewest independents among people aged seventy and older. Just 8% of this age group labeled themselves "independents," compared to 11% of adults aged forty to fifty-seven; an additional 7% said they were not members of any particular party.


AARP is dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age. We lead positive social change and deliver value to members through information, advocacy and service.
AARP mission statement

Adults aged fifty-five to seventy-four vote more than any other age group, and it is inevitable that the increasing number of Americans in this cohort will wield an enormous political impact. The AARP (2007,, which had thirty-six million members in 2007, exercises considerable influence in lobbying and in educating political leaders about the issues that concern older Americans. The group's slogan, "The power to make it better," only hints at the AARP's effectiveness at promoting its agenda for social and legislative change.

As part of its purpose, the AARP advocates on behalf of older adults. The AARP is known as a powerful advocate on a range of legislative, consumer, and legal issues. To this end, the organization monitors issues pertinent to the lives of older Americans, assesses public opinion on such issues, and keeps policy makers apprised of those opinions. Advocacy efforts also include becoming involved in litigation when the decision could have a significant effect on the lives of older Americans. In cases regarding age discrimination, pensions, health care, economic security, and consumer issues, AARP lawyers will file amicus briefs (legal documents filed by individuals or groups that are not actual parties to a lawsuit but that are interested in influencing the outcome of the lawsuit) and support third-party lawsuits to promote the interests of older people.

The AARP has historically issued policy statements about topics such as age discrimination, quality of care in nursing facilities, Social Security, Medicare and other health coverage, paying for prescription drugs and long-term care, nontraditional living arrangements, and pension plan reforms. It also offers pertinent information for older adults on topics such as health, travel, employment, technology, and volunteer and learning opportunities, as well as member discounts and benefits.

Silver-Haired Legislatures

The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.
Alexis de Tocqueville

As of 2007 thirty-one states had "silver-haired legislatures"activists aged sixty and older who propose and track legislation affecting older adults. Members of these legislatures are elected by their peers and try to influence bills pertaining to medical care, pension plan reform, consumer protection, and age discrimination, often by educating the real legislators and policy makers about the issues. Their ranks include former teachers, judges, doctors, business owners, and even retired legislators.

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Education, Political Behavior, and Voting