American politics in a post-baby boom era

Every generation thinks it's going to change the world. Every generation finds the previous and subsequent generations a mystery. We are perplexed by those older or younger than us. But is this generational difference real or simply something imagined, only for it to disappear as a new group of people age and become responsible?

There is an old adage: If you are not a socialist at 18 you have no heart, if you are not a conservative at 40 you have no brain. What are we to make of us?

There is clear evidence that we are on the verge of a major generational change in American politics, one that attests to the transition to a post-baby boom world. It is a world transitioning from a more conservative silent and baby boom political world to one dominated partly by Gen Xers, but more so and soon by the millennial generation. It will be a world more liberal or at least differently liberal from the current one, portending significant challenges to the current two-party system but especially to the Republicans who look increasingly out of touch with the new generation coming up.

So what is meant by generation politics? There is significant evidence in the field of political sociology that as a cohort of similarly aged people reach adolescence they collectively experience the world and major events in such a way that it forms their political outlook and orientations for the duration of their life. Contrary to the received wisdom that people become more conservative as they age the reality is that the political views and ideology one acquires in adolescence or in young adulthood persists for life. Yes, some people do change political orientations, but for the most part how you think about the world politically at age 20ish will stay with you for life. Not everyone within a generation will adopt the same political views, but there is evidence of a collective outlook or in German an Anschauungen that will define them.

In recent American history the most famous generation was the GI or "Greatest Generation." It was dominated by those who came of age during the Depression, fought World War II, and eventually led the country through presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. This generation is largely gone. What remains are four generations - the silents, baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. Studies by the Pew Center for the People and the Press along with Gallup and other polling organizations demonstrate clear demographic and partisan patterns among these four groups.

The silents are the oldest, whitest, and most Christian of the four, born 1925 to 1945. Politically, far more define themselves as conservative as opposed to liberal, and they are generally opposed to immigration reform, GLBT rights, reproductive rights, taxes, and an activist role for the federal government in the economy.

Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1960, or up to 1964 according to some studies. Until now they were the largest generation in American history with more than 77 million members. Boomers are split between younger and older ones. The older ones born in the 40s and early 50s tend to be more liberal, those coming later more conservative. Overall far more boomers, contrary to what one may think of images from the 1960s suggest when many came of age, identify as conservative as opposed to liberal, at least when it comes to social issues.

The Gen Xers were born between approximately 1961 and 1981. They are somewhat small cohort, more supportive of diversity and reproductive rights issues than the silents, for example, and generally they rank still overall more conservative than liberal.

But the big change is with the millennials, born between 1982 and 2000. Demographically they are most populous cohort in history, topping 80 million. They are also the most racially diverse, least Christian, and least religious among the most recent generations. They are strongly supportive of immigration reform, GLBT and reproductive rights, and support an activist role of the federal government in the economy. And according to a recent Gallup poll, the only generation which more fully identifies itself as liberal as opposed to conservative.

Politically the implications of this generational breakdown are powerful. Not a surprise, the silents and younger boomers identify as Republicans, and they show up to vote. Old boomers are Democrats and vote, Gen Xers are Democrats and their political strength is at its peak - they elected Obama as one of their own. The millennials are more likely to vote Democratic or be Democrats as opposed to Republicans when they vote - but this cohort does not engage as much politically as its three older generations, and more of it is more likely to list itself as political independents.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this. First, the core of the Republican Party is a base of individuals existing the political system and who will be gone within a decade. Literally the Republican Party is dying off and it faces a major problem in regenerating itself and appealing to a new generation who support immigration reform, GLBT rights, and reproductive rights. After the 2012 elections the National Republican Party saw this issue but has largely ignored it. The Catch-22 is that the current base opposes these changes and votes, the coming millennials do not support these issues but do not vote ? yet. The Republicans have no immediate incentive to evolve politically and therefore will not.

For the Democrats, the future is potentially rosy in that the millennials are more liberal, yet for now they do not vote and therefore cannot yet be counted on to be part of a reliable political base. Additionally, many millennials are independents and do not like the current lineup of issue choices or positions that either the Democrats or Republicans offer. Democrats act foolishly in thinking that the simple demographic change accompanying the rise of the millennials means a bright future for their party. Millennials are liberal, but have a different concept of liberalism from older Democrats, and they appear to want to play politics differently from their older siblings.

Over all, the cohort replacement of silents and boomers by the millennials is going to shift American politics into a largely more liberal direction in the next few years. Issues such as GLBT rights will become mainstream. But millennials are demanding a different politics and political alignment among the issues and parties, and that is going to be the biggest change one sees in Minnesota and nationally as we more firmly move into a post-baby boom world.

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Published: Fri, Feb 13, 2015