The boomer’s long domination of American politics, culture and economics will one day come to an end. A new generation–the so-called millennials–will be shaping the outlines of our society, but the shape of their coming reign could prove more complex than many have imagined.
Conventional wisdom, particularly among boomer “progressives,” paints millennials–those born after 1983–as the instruments for fulfilling the promise of the 1960s cultural revolt. In 2008 the left-leaning Center for American Progress dubbed them “The Progressive Generation.”
The center contrasted them favorably to the Xers, a cohort of 20 million fewer, and their “conservative views.”
The case for the millennials’ left-leaning views can be traced to when the oldest millennials started to vote, in 2004. That year big loser John Kerry took the 18 to 29 vote by nearly 10 points. In the last election millennials supported Barack Obama over John McCain by a staggering 30 points. He outperformed McCain in every ethnic group, winning 54% of young white voters and a remarkable 76% of young Hispanics. Obama may still have won without millennial support, but only narrowly.
This vote was shaped by important and perhaps lasting attitudes. Authors Morley Winograd and Michael Hais identified among these young voters a strong communitarian ethos, generally liberal social views and somewhat of a “green” agenda. They wrote that millennials’ embrace of the Democratic Party in 2008 could foreshadow a long-awaited leftward realignment paralleling that which occurred in the 1930s.
Yet there are signs that millennial voters, if not shifting to the right, may have lost some of their progressive ardor. Recent polls suggest that younger voters are far less likely to vote this year than in 2008. Gallup reports that nearly half of voters ages 18 to 29 are not enthusiastic about turning up at the polls this November, a far higher number than senior or boomer voters.
One reason for such a dramatic shift is likely the economy. The current recession has been very hard on younger workers–unemployment hits around 20% for workers between 16 and 24. The brunt of the recession has hit blue-collar, high school educated youths, but even the college crowd, the core of the Obama constituency, faces what appears to be dismal prospects in the years ahead.
Not too surprisingly, a May Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor survey of voters 18 to 29 found only 45% of millennials still solidly behind the president’s economic agenda. This could have a depressing impact on the leftward lurch among millennials. Indeed one recent Harvard survey found only half of all young voters planned to vote Democratic for Congress this year, compared with 60% in 2006.
If the downturn persists, we could see some changes in generational politics. In the 1970s a similarly dismal economy accompanied the boomers as they were entering the workforce in huge numbers. Then, as now, long-term unemployment and underemployment seemed the wave of the future.
The hard times of the 1970s changed the politics of the boomers. The bungled presidency of Jimmy Carter did not do much for the credit of the Democratic Party. Boomers, who sided with Carter in 1976, ended up voting for Ronald Reagan in large numbers four years later. The relative prosperity of the Reagan years painted a basically conservative tinge to boomer voters, something that benefited both Republicans and more centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton.
This change could occur again, but other factors may slow a rightward shift among millenials. Republican nativism–exemplified by the Arizona immigration law–may be a boon with boomer voters, who are overwhelmingly white (only one in four are non-white). In contrast, roughly two in five millennials are minority group members. The age group 18 and under is already majority “minority.”
Another big factor will be social liberalism. On a host of critical issues–from interracial dating to gay marriage–millennials tend to be far more “progressive” than earlier generations. According to a recent Pew study, 63% of millennials believed society should accept homosexuality compared with only 48% of boomers.
Millennials also tend to disapprove of such things as prayer in school compared with boomers or older generations. Although most express some religious commitment, there are more unaffiliated and basic non-believers than in previous generations. The GOP’s long-term embrace of a hard religious right positions will not pay off among millennial voters.
Perhaps most troubling for Republicans–and this is a point emphasized by Winograd and Hais–are millennial views on government. Two-thirds, according to Pew, currently favor an expanded government role in the economy compared with roughly 40% of boomers. Not surprisingly, tea partiers, at least for now, are more likely to come from the older set than younger voters.
Yet there is no lock for the Democrats. For one thing, expansive government is likely to be more attractive to those who are not yet paying taxes. As millenials head into their late 20s and early 30s, they may adopt different somewhat views. If the current public sector expansion proves ineffectual in creating jobs–after all not everyone can work for Uncle Sam–they could, like their boomer forebears, embrace a more private-sector oriented approach.
More than anything else, both liberals and conservatives need to understand that this emerging generation may prove far less predictable than either side expects. Many “progressive” urbanists, for example, expect that most millenials will be happy to live in dense multifamily housing–largely as renters–as they enter their 30s. This is probably not altogether the case.
Hais and Winograd argue that millenials may be more attracted to urban settings–as is often the case for younger, unmarried and childless people–than boomers and older generation. Yet their research also shows that more than twice as many–some 43%–identify suburbs as their “ideal place to live.” They embrace suburbs even more than boomers.
Similarly, this generation also shares with the boomers a strong interest in homeownership–refuting the claim of some urban boosters that renting is the wave of the future. Instead they appear surprisingly traditional in terms of wanting marriage, kids and believing in following the rules. They may change things up, but still very much embrace the desire to achieve the “American dream.”
In these and many ways, millennials are likely to continue redefining our society in ways that neither currently boomer dominated party will appreciate. Given the mess the boomers have left them, that may prove a difference worth celebrating.