WASHINGTON — WATCH out, George Bush! Older Americans are on the warpath.
Angry and frustrated by economic and social problems and ineffective government, Americans over the age of 50 are in the vanguard of what could be a "political revolution" in the 1992 presidential campaign.
A new nationwide study by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press finds that in this year's elections, the greatest threat to President Bush comes from older voters. And the older they are, the more disgusted they are with the way things are going.
"The over-65 crowd is furious," says Donald Kellerman, director of the Times Mirror Center. He says many of these voters are in a mood to "pick up the paving stones."
Rebelliousness among older voters has shaken the ordinary rules of politics and sociology and even turned them upside down.
Usually, it is youth who want to overturn the established order. Remember the long-haired young rebels of the 1960s? But now, it's the senior citizens who are demanding change.
Anger is turning into action. Older Americans were the first to rally around Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate. They are the quickest to attend political meetings and write letters to officials. They spend more time reading newspapers and studying issues than their youthful counterparts, and the survey finds they know a lot more about what is going on.
On Election Day, older Americans will have far more clout than any other age group, according to the Times Mirror Center. They comprise 36 percent of the voting age population, but are expected to cast 41 percent of the ballots because of higher turnout.
Young people (18-34 years old) are an equally large group, but will cast just 28 percent of the ballots. The reason: youthful apathy.
Why are seniors rebelling?
Mr. Kellerman says: "American society has produced a different kind of older people."
Americans over 50 "had a remarkable variety of experiences" that were grounded in real life, not in "TV shows," Kellerman says.
For this older generation, "the depression of the 1930s is a living memory, not something you read about in history books," he says.
"Even more, World War II was four years of active involvement of the entire population in war. After that, this generation came home in the 1950s and made this the most prosperous country in the world."
Now this older generation "sees signs of trouble," Kellerman says. "Younger people do not sense the danger signs."
Perhaps appropriately for a group of people who are used to taking chances, this older generation is ready to throw out current officeholders to try a fresh approach in Washington.
The Times Mirror study reports: "Close to two out of three older Americans take the position that new leadership is needed, even if there's a chance that it will be ineffective.
Fewer than half of those under 30 favor following that course."
The study also concludes:
"The 50-and-older generation doesn't confine its anger to the political system. Older people are more likely than middle-aged people to rail against the inefficiencies of the federal bureaucracy, while at the same time they call into question the power and profits of big business."
It continues: "On almost every measure of evaluation [they] voice more criticism of politics, business, and federal bureaucracy than do people who came of age in the '60s, '70s, or '80s."
While many of these seniors support Mr. Perot, older black voters are more inclined to back Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
The Times Mirror study is based on an unusually large sample, with 3,500 interviews between May 28 and June 10. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.
There was additional bad news in the survey for Mr. Bush among younger voters - those in the Baby Boom generation. Many in this large age group, which includes people born from 1946 to 1964, are just reaching political maturity, with growing involvement at the ballot box and in political campaigns.
Mr. Kellerman says of the Baby Boomers: "They are not as angry as the older voters, but they are discontented. The Boomers are much more aligned with the older generation than with the younger generation."
Compared to the Baby Boomers, younger American voters are indifferent to politics and relatively happy, Kellerman says. They provide Bush with some of his most reliable support this year.
The difference in attitudes between young and old showed up clearly in many responses to Times Mirror questions. For example, the survey asked whether voters agreed that "when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."
Among the young, 50 percent agreed, with 16 percent agreeing "completely." Among older voters, 75 percent agreed, with 38 percent agreeing completely.