Where did they come from and where did they go?
May 20, 2016 12:26 PM   Subscribe

This article from Pew says that millenial voters have nearly caught up numerically to baby boomers. But what I'm wondering about is this chart, where the number of baby boomers spikes up between 2002 and 2004, then drops back down by 2006 to roughly 2000 levels and remains level through 2012.

The chart is about eligible voters, not turnout, so why was there that spike? Was there a greater-than-usual amount of people in their 40s becoming citizens in those two years? If so, why the drop after 2004 to about the same level for the next few elections? There was a similar upswing in the Gen X numbers, but it doesn't seem to be the same kind of spike.
posted by Etrigan to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I looked at this table of US population, and it doesn't really turn up. There's a faint maximum above trend (when I plugged that table into excel) in 2005, but it covers all of 2001-2007. And is super faint. And includes all ages, when one would expect population changes to be driven by births and deaths, not 40-year-olds. So I don't know, but it's an interesting question.
posted by aimedwander at 1:45 PM on May 20, 2016

Just guessing here, so take it for what it's worth. I wouldn't call the difference a "spike"—more like a blip, maybe. And since those years are NOT census years, the numbers are estimates, so perhaps within the margin of error.
posted by she's not there at 1:47 PM on May 20, 2016

First of all, this is not a great graph, because it's so tiny-- there's a more detailed graph of the baby boomer population in Figure 2, page 4 of this pdf (the data source is different and it's not measuring citizens, but the concept is related). What looks like a "spike" on the Pew graph is actually just a very, very gentle peak involving a few hundred thousand people.

The reason for the peak is very simple, that boomer deaths have begun to outpace immigration. If you want to look at some specific numbers, there were 76 million babies born in the U.S. during the "boom". This 2002 article shows that by 2000, there were 4 million boomer deaths and 7.6 million immigrants. The article was updated in 2014: from 2000 to 2012, there were an additional 7 million deaths and 3.8 million immigrants. According to the Census graph, the turning point was apparently around 2000.

Of course you are interested in a smaller subset of the population, citizens. This article, specifically the paragraph below Figure 1 has a good overview of US immigration policy and how certain legislation in 1986 and 1996 has affected residency and naturalization. You can also see the naturalization data in Figure 1 in a slightly better graph here. So there were especially high numbers of naturalization in 1996, 1999, and 2000 (and just generally a lot more than in the 80s/early 90s), which might explain why the citizenship numbers appear to be flat even though the boomer death rate was surely slowly increasing.
posted by acidic at 1:59 PM on May 20, 2016

I think it is immigration in general, for a few reasons.

First, Gen X voters increase in 02-04 too. (You can't see any increase in Silent/greatest because the death rate is big enough to swamp other effects, and for millennials the population turning 18 is similarly the main effect).

Note also that Gen X continues to slowly increase, even though their turning-18 period ends at the beginning of this chart. I'd really like to see the chart for earlier years; wouldn't surprise me at all if the trend line for boomers would look just like that for gen x except shifted.

Well and scaled down because for some stupid reason these generations aren't the same length. Gen X is three birth years shorter than either millennials or Boomers. So of course there are fewer of them.

Anyhow I would then expect that Gen X will continue to trend up for only a few more years, until their death rate overcomes any immigration (as finally happened to Boomers in 2004). If that's right then Gen X growth should stall out soon and start to decrease 2020 or so.
posted by nat at 2:03 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm missing something here, i.e., I don't understand how immigration would explain this. A few hundred thousand boomer-age immigrants enter the country in 2002-2004 and then there's a die-off of boomers that erases that blip?
posted by she's not there at 2:11 PM on May 20, 2016

There wasn't an overall increase in naturalization during those years (see this chart).

Table 6 on the last page of this PDF shows that the share of naturalizations for persons 45-54 remained relatively constant from 2002-2004 at around 16.5% of total naturalizations.

There was a change in citizenship for military service around that time:
Under special provisions in Section 329 of the INA, the President signed an executive order on July 3, 2002, authorizing all noncitizens who have served honorably in the U.S. armed forces on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to immediately file for citizenship. This order also covers veterans of certain designated past wars and conflicts. The authorization will remain in effect until a date designated by a future presidential executive order.
These numbers are included in the PDF above for naturalization rate by age, so I don't think it's that.

Death rates by age group and year can be found here - also relatively constant from 02-04.

Looking at their definition of "eligible voters"-- the census current population survey (a source of the Pew data) says in this other voter report [pdf] that they consider only the civilian noninstitutionalized population in the United States - so perhaps that is the source of the blip (doesn't consider military ppl, institutionalized ppl, or non-US residents).

My guess would be military boomers retired (and/or were disabled in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and discharged), but the small increase in the number of eligible voters this caused was quickly outpaced by an increase in death or nursing home residency among boomers. Or possibly expats repatriating post 9/11 (or Puerto Rico residents moving to the mainland). I haven't found any data sources for these theories yet.
posted by melissasaurus at 2:56 PM on May 20, 2016

I think it is more like "in 02-04 naturalization outpaced death rate among boomers. After 04 it didn't. ". So either more boomers started dying (as they aged) or less naturalization happened, or more likely a bit of both. (Although I can't really square this with the graph of naturalizations above; it seems like the uptick should predate 02-04).
posted by nat at 2:58 PM on May 20, 2016

On nonpreview, mellisasaurus has it, but I don't understand why voting population is reported without overseas or military? We get to vote too..
posted by nat at 3:01 PM on May 20, 2016

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