There was no exit sign, no milepost. But in this week’s election, America unmistakably turned onto the road of sustained competition and conflict between the brown and the gray.
That’s the phrase I coined, drawing on the work of demographer William Frey, to describe the two giant generations reshaping American life. The brown is centered on the 95 million-member millennial generation, born from 1982 to 2002 and now moving into the workforce and the electorate. The gray revolves around the 85 million-member baby-boom generation born from 1946 to 1964, which is steadily moving out of the workforce into retirement but remains a huge voting presence.
About two-fifths of millennials are nonwhite, and that number rises in the generation born after them. By contrast, the baby boom, and the silent generation that preceded it, is preponderantly white (largely because the United States virtually closed off immigration from the 1920s until 1965). About four-fifths of today’s seniors are white, and Frey projects that number to drop only slowly in the coming decades.
On Tuesday, these generations firmly planted themselves across a sharp divide. President Obama won a solid 60 percent of voters under age 30, capturing more than 90 percent of younger African-Americans and nearly three-fourths of younger Hispanics, according to exit polls. Mitt Romney carried a resounding 61 percent both among white seniors and near-retirement whites ages 45-64.
This contrast was part of the overall racial divergence that defined the election, with Obama winning a combined 80 percent of minorities (who represented a record 28 percent of voters), and Romney capturing 59 percent of whites. But the distance between the brown and the gray is the point of that spear. “These are the major drivers of the future demography of the country and the future division of the country,” says Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This diverse growing millennial population versus the boomers who are moving into their senior years, largely white, and who have a ... view of America that is very different from the younger populations.”
Those differences begin with social issues. Though nonwhite young people (especially African-Americans) aren’t as socially liberal as younger whites, almost three-fifths of minorities under 30 supported gay marriage in a recent Pew Research Center survey; almost three-fifths of white seniors opposed it. Younger minorities (with some exceptions, again, among African-Americans) not surprisingly cheer the wave of immigration reshaping America; by contrast, in another Pew survey this year, three-fifths of white seniors agreed that the “growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values.”
The role of government provokes the most explosive conflict. The aging white population has grown increasingly resistant to taxes and dubious of public spending on anything except the Social Security and Medicare programs that directly benefit them. Many of the gray bristle over federal transfer programs to the poor, yet they (incorrectly) view Social Security and Medicare as social insurance that they’ve pre-funded rather than as a subsidized entitlement. In sharp contrast, the minority population overwhelmingly views government investment in education, health, and safety-net programs as the best ladder of opportunity for themselves and their children. “While there’s a lot of talk about the middle-class, it’s the path to the middle class [that concerns] our community,” Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza noted this week.
Today, Washington spends about $7 per senior for each $1 it spends on kids. Morley Winograd, coauthor of two books on the millennial generation, says that the new math of the Democratic electoral coalition will compel party leaders to shift spending from senior-oriented entitlements to programs, like pre-K education and student-loan relief, that benefit younger (and heavily minority) generations. Obama already took a rare step toward that rebalancing with his health care plan, which used Medicare savings to fund coverage for the working-age uninsured. The senior backlash against that step (stoked partly by a racially incendiary Romney campaign ad in which a narrator, over images of anxious white seniors, accused Obama of raiding Medicare to fund a program that’s “not for you”) helped drive Romney’s huge advantage among older whites.
These divergent generations could continue to collide for decades. Today, white seniors significantly outnumber younger nonwhite adults. Frey projects that by 2020, there will be 60 million whites age 60 and older and 42 million nonwhite adults born after 1982. By 2030, the lines will cross and nonwhite adults born after 1982 will outnumber white seniors—but only slightly.
This could be a formula for endemic racial polarization of the sort evident in Tuesday’s election, unless we recognize the common interests that bind these generations. As Frey and others note, unless we prepare more of the younger nonwhite millennials for middle-class jobs, there will be no one to pay the payroll taxes needed to fund the entitlements for the aging white baby boomers. Only greater economic opportunity for the brown can produce true economic security for the gray—even if that wasn’t clear as these two behemoth generations stampeded in opposite directions on Tuesday.
This column appeared in print as "Brown vs. Gray."
This article appears in the November 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.