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Off Their Rockers

October 8, 2004 |
It is not surprising that the political agenda of American grandparents is evolving as quickly as their family roles.
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Today's carefully scripted political campaigns may pay lip service to the diverse interests of seniors, but a surprising number of candidates and their doting political strategists still think the senior vote is won or lost on the battlefield of Social Security and Medicare -- the so-called "third rail" of American politics. Of course, no one worth their political salt would say it out loud, but the stereotype of the "greedy geezer" is still an indelible fixture in the campaign handbook, reinforced by narrow polls that rarely reveal seniors' true priorities. Though it may confound the most seasoned pundits, the key to the senior vote in this troubled, insecure world is for both parties to move beyond a narrow discussion of prescription drugs and financial security and recognize the fact that most older voters -- including more than 70 million American grandparents -- put their families' needs before their own.

The growing frustration over antiquated outreach tactics at both the state and federal levels has motivated an increasing number of seniors to break out of this political pigeonholing. Among these efforts is Granny Voter, better known to technologically savvy "silver surfers" as GrannyVote.com. The brainchild of a not-so-garden variety group of grandmothers that includes Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, foundation president Ruth Massinga, former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and talented others, Granny Voters are the self-proclaimed "next-steppers" -- 21st century, bipartisan, politically sophisticated grannies determined to be heard on the variety of issues that affect their families -- from budget deficits and the environment to world peace. They are hopeful that their message will be as effective as their historical presence at the polls. In the last presidential election alone, more than 70 percent of seniors ages 55 to 74 voted.

"Our message to grandparents today is simple: Vote for your grandchildren who cannot vote but who have to live with the effects of today's policies," says cultural anthropologist and proud grandmother Mary Catherine Bateson. To politicians, writes Goodman, stop addressing 'older' voters as if they were a "disconnected, self-interested pod" without any regard for the future of today's children. "We believe that the experience of being a grandparent shifts the way older voters cast their votes," says Ferraro. "Political candidates and pundits who overlook this aspect of their lives do so at their own peril."

Although grassroots movements such as Granny Voter seem to signal a new approach to political mobilization for seniors, they also echo a time gone by in America's political landscape. Even before the era of expansive federal bureaucracies, large government benefit programs, and the notion of retirement, grandparents and other seniors have always voted in the best interests of their families—to keep their farms, small businesses and communities prosperous and to share their legacies for future generations. In this sense, as with all politics, everything has changed and nothing has. Just as conversations in post offices, diners and church coffee hours across the country are not limited to the special interests of seniors, neither is their voting calculus.

It is not surprising that the political agenda of American grandparents is evolving as quickly as their family roles. Right now in the United States, there are 4.5 million children who are living in households headed by grandparents, according to the U.S. Census. More than two million grandparents are primarily responsible for raising grandchildren whose parents struggle with substance abuse, incarceration, mental illness and unemployment. Thousands of additional grandparents are looking after grandchildren while their sons and daughters are deployed in Iraq. In addition to grandparents who find themselves parenting once again, 10 times that number—45 million older Americans—provide routine day-to-day child care for grandchildren as 70 percent of American mothers find their way into the workforce.

Even those grandparents who have a more traditional grandparenting role still have a front row seat to the difficulties facing their families. They know better than any politician that their children struggle to find affordable health insurance, good public schools, quality child care and safe neighborhoods for their grandchildren. Today's grandparents who came of age in the nuclear era (and fought in wars from World War II to Vietnam) also have a special understanding of the country's precarious role in the world and the difficult task of creating and maintaining an effective foreign policy. Instead of enjoying long-awaited retirements, some embattled middle-class grandparents are forced to stay longer in the workforce, contending with unstable jobs vulnerable to off-shoring, inadequate pensions, and the other vagaries of the burgeoning global economy.

In addition to initiatives like Granny Voter, evidence of the more altruistic sides of senior voters is also backed by another do-or-die measure: the polls. While most senior polls, by definition, are limited to a narrow set of pre-conceived voter priorities, one more open-ended poll taken before the New Hampshire primary, for example, found that senior voters surveyed were significantly more concerned with strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and improving education than preserving Medicare and prescription drug benefits. In an October 2003 survey, pollsters found that 88 percent of older voters interviewed say they would prefer a candidate who listens to young people than one who focuses on their needs.

My own grandmother once reminded me that when women finally won the right to vote, she and my great-grandmother went to the polls for the first time together. "Never waste your vote," she said," but don't waste people's time with your opinions." Thankfully, my mother, now a grandmother herself, never subscribed to the latter part of that theory. Instead, she has decided to join the growing ranks of the "we" generation, '60s reformers turned grandparent activists who are bringing unprecedented political power, cold hard cash, and a whole lot of opinions to the November elections. And this time, if politicians are smart, they'll listen to their grannies for a change.

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