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A woman casts her ballot during early voting in Toledo, Ohio. Members of the silent generation are more likely to vote for Republicans than for Democrats, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
A woman casts her ballot during early voting in Toledo, Ohio. Members of the silent generation are more likely to vote for Republicans than for Democrats, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. J.D. Pooley/Getty Images
When next year's election comes around, it looks like the so-called silent generation — those who are now 66 to 83 years old — won't be so silent. A new report shows that this group is angrier with politics right now than any other generation in the U.S., and that is prompting it to pay close attention to the 2012 presidential election.
Its members express "not just frustration with Washington but real anger," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "Thirty percent of them say, 'I'm angry.' If you look at the youngest voters, it's only 13 percent."
The center's report, "Generational Politics," examines views across four age groups labeled the millennial generation (ages 18 to 30); Generation X (ages 31 to 46); baby boomers (ages 47 to 65) and the silent generation.
Pew researchers conclude that a generation gap — between millennials and silents — is growing. Younger voters now consider themselves more liberal, and older voters say they are becoming more conservative.
The silent generation turned 18 during the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies — after World War II and in the shadow of the "greatest generation."
The highly polished McGuire Sisters were one of the teenage musical sounds of this generation. As members of the silent generation raised families, their conservatism deepened. Small government has been a mantra for them. In 2008 they were the only generation to favor John McCain over Barack Obama.
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A woman holds a sign during a rally to protect federal health programs in California. A report by the Pew Research Center shows that 45 percent of silent generation members say Social Security is the issue that will matter most in deciding their vote in the next election.
As the 2012 election gets closer, their anger has them more engaged in politics than other generations.
"We look at the question of how much thought they've given to the election," says Kohut. "Four years ago only 36 percent of this generation said they were giving a lot of thought; now it's up to 42 percent."
At the same time, Kohut says, millennial voters are less engaged than they were four years ago, when they turned out for President Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.
NPR talked with a group of people — all in the silent generation age group — as they waited for a free movie to begin at the Wissahickon Valley Public Library in Blue Bell, Pa., on Nov. 1.
"The younger people, they have no clue as to what's really going on out there," says James Farrell, 69, of Fort Washington, Pa. He worries about the economy and how that will affect his finances in retirement.
The Silent Generation
Born: 1928-1945; turned 18: 1946-1963; current age: 66-83
- Conservative views on government and society for most of their lives
- Once one of the most Democratic generations; today it is mostly Republican
- More uncomfortable than younger people with many of the social changes in the nation, including racial diversity and homosexuality
- Only group to favor McCain over Obama in 2008
- Highly engaged in 2012 election, as in 2010
- More likely to rate Social Security as top voting issue
- Favor Republicans on most issues, but not Social Security
- 79 percent are non-Hispanic whites
Source: Pew Research Center
Others in the group say the millennial generation doesn't know how good life can be in the U.S. They think back to when Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan or even Bill Clinton was president and say it was much better then.
"I think the country is in a huge mess," says Marjorie Lukens, 80, of Ambler, Pa. She's a registered Republican but votes across parties and is dissatisfied with both the GOP and the Democrats.
"The Republicans are blocking everything Obama wants to do and cooperation has become a dirty word," says Lukens. "And I'm not sure Obama knows what he's doing."
The problems extend beyond politics to the culture, says Linda Cohen, 67, of Fort Washington, Pa. She points to medical dramas on television to illustrate her concern.
"When you watched Marcus Welby — Dr. Marcus Welby — on TV, it's not like a Grey's Anatomy or Private Practice that you have today, where everybody is getting into bed with everybody else," says Cohen who attributes the change to a loss of "family values."
Recent episodes of Grey's Anatomy feature a lesbian couple who also are mixed race — a sign of the times in an increasingly diverse country. But things like mixed-race marriages and homosexuality don't sit well with many in the silent generation.
"What comes through in the survey — there is a feeling of discomfort or lack of comfort with modern America among many older people," says Kohut. "And I think it has something to do with some of the signs that they see, that this is not necessarily the America that they knew."
While the silent generation identifies closely with Republicans, Kohut says there is one issue that's a wild card: Social Security. The generation's members are big supporters of it and Medicare and they're as likely to favor Democrats on this issue as they are Republicans.
The question is whether that one issue is important enough to swing some voters who are over 65 toward President Obama — and away from a Republican challenger — next November.
Given how engaged the silent generation is in this election, over the next year expect to hear candidates talking a lot about Social Security and Medicare.