After 2016 Election, Will Millennials Know How to Use Their New Power?

Millennials replace boomers as the electorate’s largest generation. Will policy reflect their rising political influence?

ED OAK, IA - NOVEMBER 04: Voters get an 'I VOTED TODAY' sticker after casting their ballots on election day at the Red Oak Fire Department November 4, 2014 in Red Oak, Iowa.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 22, 2015, 12:37 a.m.

In pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, the Mil­len­ni­al Mo­ment is ar­riv­ing. The ques­tion is wheth­er this elect­or­al tip­ping point will also pro­duce an over­due re­align­ment in policy.

ED OAK, IA - NOVEM­BER 04: Voters get an ‘I VOTED TODAY’ stick­er after cast­ing their bal­lots on elec­tion day at the Red Oak Fire De­part­ment Novem­ber 4, 2014 in Red Oak, Iowa. (Chip So­mod­ev­illa/Getty Im­ages)In 2016, for the first time, mem­bers of the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion will al­most ex­actly equal baby boomers as a share of adults eli­gible to vote, ac­cord­ing to pro­jec­tions from the non­par­tis­an States of Change pro­ject. The pro­ject fore­casts that, next year, mil­len­ni­als (which it defines as those born between 1981 and 2000) will rep­res­ent 30.5 per­cent of eli­gible voters, vir­tu­ally match­ing the baby boomers’ 30.7 per­cent. By 2020, boomers will shrink to about 28 per­cent of eli­gible voters, while mil­len­ni­als rise past 34 per­cent, the pro­ject fore­casts.

Be­cause eli­gible older adults vote more re­li­ably than young­er ones, mil­len­ni­als al­most cer­tainly won’t catch boomers among ac­tu­al voters next year. But that day is near­ing: Mil­len­ni­als could cast more bal­lots than baby boomers by 2020. As re­cently as 2008, baby boomers rep­res­en­ted twice as many eli­gible voters as mil­len­ni­als and nearly three times as many ac­tu­al ones.

This trans­ition is end­ing a dom­in­ant run for baby boomers, the huge co­hort born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers ec­lipsed the GI Gen­er­a­tion that fought World War II as the largest share of eli­gible voters in 1980 and passed them as the biggest bloc of ac­tu­al voters in 1984, Census fig­ures show. They have reigned as the largest gen­er­a­tion on both counts in every pres­id­en­tial race since.

But now boomers are giv­ing way to mil­len­ni­als (and the first post-mil­len­ni­als, who will cast bal­lots in 2020). This in­ex­or­able gen­er­a­tion­al trans­ition could lift Demo­crats and chal­lenge Re­pub­lic­ans—if cur­rent loy­al­ties hold. Though baby boomers first emerged as a cul­tur­ally lib­er­al force, the gen­er­a­tion is about 80 per­cent white and it has moved right (par­tic­u­larly on spend­ing) as it has grayed: Re­pub­lic­ans won about three-fifths of whites ages 45 to 64 in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elec­tions.

Demo­crats have per­formed much bet­ter with mil­len­ni­als, who are more sec­u­lar (one-third are re­li­giously un­af­fili­ated) and di­verse (more than 40 per­cent are non­white). Though Demo­crats have lost some ground with mil­len­ni­als since Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2008 vic­tory, he still car­ried 60 per­cent of them in 2012. Par­tic­u­larly on cul­tur­al is­sues, Demo­crats have aligned their agenda more closely than Re­pub­lic­ans have with mil­len­ni­al views. More than three-fourths of mil­len­ni­als back gay mar­riage. In a re­cent ABC”Š/”ŠWash­ing­ton Post poll, nearly two-thirds of them said they wanted the next pres­id­ent to act on cli­mate change, and al­most three-fifths pre­ferred a pres­id­ent who would leg­al­ize un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. And while mil­len­ni­als look skep­tic­ally at all big in­sti­tu­tions, polls have found them more re­cept­ive than older gen­er­a­tions are to a lar­ger gov­ern­ment provid­ing more pro­grams and ser­vices. (Al­though white mil­len­ni­als view gov­ern­ment more skep­tic­ally than their minor­ity peers, those young­er whites are more open to ex­pans­ive gov­ern­ment than are older whites.)

The biggest Demo­crat­ic chal­lenge with mil­len­ni­als isn’t ideo­logy; it’s per­form­ance. Dur­ing Obama’s two terms, the gen­er­a­tion has struggled eco­nom­ic­ally. Com­pared with earli­er gen­er­a­tions at the same age, mil­len­ni­als are more likely to be poor and less likely to be mar­ried. Most im­port­ant, today’s house­holds headed by 25- to 32-year-olds have ac­cu­mu­lated only half as many fin­an­cial as­sets as their coun­ter­parts had in 1984—even though more young people today hold col­lege de­grees.

Mil­len­ni­als are strain­ing to ad­vance partly be­cause so many entered the labor mar­ket after the 2007 fin­an­cial crash. But the gen­er­a­tion’s un­pre­ced­en­ted stu­dent-debt load has com­poun­ded its prob­lems. About two-thirds of mil­len­ni­als, com­pared with only about two-fifths of later baby boomers, say they bor­rowed to at­tend col­lege.

That dis­par­ity points to a lar­ger gen­er­a­tion­al con­trast. While baby boomers be­nefited in their youth from in­creas­ing pub­lic spend­ing—on everything from in­ter­state high­ways to the big state-uni­versity sys­tems—mil­len­ni­als have faced a sus­tained squeeze on in­vest­ments in their fu­ture. That shift is en­cap­su­lated by erod­ing tax­pay­er sup­port for pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion, a key path­way to up­ward mo­bil­ity. Robert Hilton­smith, seni­or policy ana­lyst at the lib­er­al think tank Demos, re­cently re­por­ted that state ap­pro­pri­ations now cov­er only 44 per­cent of edu­ca­tion­al costs for pub­lic col­leges and uni­versit­ies, down from two-thirds in 2000. That has shif­ted costs partly to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment (through rising Pell Grants) but mostly to stu­dents and their fam­il­ies. The con­trast with the baby boomers is re­veal­ing: Meas­ured in in­fla­tion-ad­jus­ted dol­lars, tu­ition for pub­lic uni­versit­ies in­creased by about $450 from 1964 to 1976, while waves of boomers at­ten­ded. By con­trast, pub­lic-uni­versity tu­ition soared by more than $3,200 from 2001 to 2012 as the mil­len­ni­als poured onto cam­puses.

Com­pound­ing the gen­er­a­tion­al in­equity, mil­len­ni­als can ex­pect high­er taxes dur­ing their work­ing years to fund So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care for the aging boomers. Mil­len­ni­als’ grow­ing polit­ic­al clout is shift­ing policy on cul­tur­al is­sues like gay mar­riage. But the real test of the gen­er­a­tion’s rising prom­in­ence will be wheth­er it forces the polit­ic­al sys­tem to in­vest more in edu­ca­tion, health, and train­ing pro­grams that sup­port its fu­ture pro­ductiv­ity—even if that means shift­ing re­sources from the re­tire­ment of the baby boomers, who the mil­len­ni­als are poised to sur­pass.

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