New Generation, New Politics

A new generation is coming of age in America and politicians ignore it at their peril. Generation Y, as it's been called, is expected to be as large as the Baby Boom Generation, and when the full group is of voting age, it could have as much political significance. It is a generation that has thus far shown itself to be disdainful of politics, cynical about political parties and more likely than any other age group to support third-party candidates. At the same time, these young people are engaged in the life of the community and expect to improve it. To write them off politically is to risk someone else mobilizing a sleeping giant.

But reaching Generation Y voters will take some doing. They have little interest in retirement security or reforming Medicare, the dominant political issues of the last few election cycles. They are a racially diverse and, in many ways, a politically progressive group; as a result, more of them call themselves Democrats than do their predecessors in Generation X and even the Baby Boom Generation. But their political worldview contains a complicated mix of liberal and conservative perspectives. Either Democrats or Republicans could plausibly win broad favor with this generation, but only if they can find the right message and deliver it with authenticity in a medium that young people are tuned to.

Political professionals usually dismiss Generation Y because it votes at a much lower rate than older Americans. Yet even at this depressed rate, voters under 25 years old will constitute between 7 percent and 8 percent of the electorate in 2004. They will rival in size other coveted swing groups such as "soccer moms" and "office-park dads." More important, they are the future electorate.

The Long Goodbye

The young voters of Generation Y in many ways represent the culmination of years of disaffection with politics and traditional political institutions. Their grandparents or great-grandparents are the Silent generation, the electorate's strongest partisans whose enduring ties to the Democratic Party were forged during the Franklin D. Roosevelt years and the formation of the modern welfare state. These seniors grew up at the height of civic engagement and collective community in America, buying war bonds, saving rubber bands, the oldest of them serving overseas. And as study after study has demonstrated, they continue to participate in politics at much higher rates than their progeny. (Because generations are rough categories, defined with different cutoff dates by different researchers -- and because voting and polling results are often reported not by generation at all but by other age groupings -- the data are not tidy. Nonetheless the overall picture is unmistakable.)

Partisan allegiance weakened among the next generation, the baby boomers, as young people challenged traditional institutions and social mores during the civil-rights, anti-war and women's movements. Participation in electoral politics remained relatively high in 1972, when 50 percent of baby boomers -- those under 25 years of age -- voted in the presidential election. But the subsequent fallout from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal marked them with a growing distrust of government and political leadership.

The children of the baby boomers, Generation X, were thus born into a world of increasing cynicism about government, and they grew up during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior administrations, when government was under systematic assault and social ills were blamed on a failed welfare state. Their depressed outlook was further fueled by a multitude of griefs -- from rising divorce rates to the economic recession to the crack epidemic to the AIDS explosion -- that made the world a dangerous place. In 1984 and 1988, as Generation X came of voting age, only 40.8 percent and 36.2 percent of people under 25 voted in those respective presidential elections. And this generation remains the most disaffected -- and conservative -- in the electorate.

Today's youngest voters, Generation Y, were raised during the heady 1990s, a time of seemingly endless dot-com possibilities, as well as social projects such as AmeriCorps that were championed by the nation's political leadership. Volunteer programs blossomed and flourished on college and high-school campuses. (As Robert Putnam shows in Bowling Alone, the rise of American volunteerism since 1975 is due solely to increases among the senior citizens of the most civically engaged generation and among people born after 1975.) But these more optimistic times did not generate any more interest in electoral politics. Just 32 percent of voters under 25 participated in the 2000 presidential election, even lower than the turnout of Gen Xers at the same age.

The Republican Surge

It is a staple of political science that people's political identities are largely formed in their youths -- and are influenced not just by their families, schools and religious institutions but also by the political times in which they come of age. Moreover, studies show that these influences endure. As Warren E. Miller and J. Merrill Shanks demonstrate in The New American Voter, the percentage of Democrats and Republicans in the electorate changes over time largely because one generation dies out and another enters, not because contemporary events alter party identifications across generations.

Thus, the recession and economic insecurity that Gen Xers faced in their early 20s, as well as 12 years of Republican administrations, left behind a cohort that entered the Republican camp in droves in the 1980s and stayed there. In 2000, according to the University of Michigan's National Election Study, only 26 percent of voters between 30 and 39 years old (mostly Gen X voters) called themselves Democrats, making them the least Democratic sector of the electorate. Survey data collected by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling and strategy group, show the same patterns.

Generation Y, however, halted these trends toward Republicanism fairly decisively. According to the National Election Study, only 18 percent of voters under 30 called themselves Republicans in 2000, compared with 35 percent of voters aged 30 to 39. Exit polls show that in 1984, with the first Gen Xers reaching the voting booths, 59 percent of voters under 30 supported Reagan. By 2000, as Generation Y began to vote, 53 percent of voters under 30 voted for Al Gore or Ralph Nader, compared with 50 percent of voters ages 30 to 44.

It is important to note that the move away from the Republican Party is driven, in part, by the nation's growing racial diversity. Only 67 percent of Gen Y voters are white, and that has a profound effect on the generation's partisanship. African American and Latino voters are significantly more likely to identify themselves as Democrats and support Democratic candidates than white voters. Fully 90 percent of African Americans and 67 percent of Latino voters supported Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

At the same time, as the Democracy Corps data shows, Gen Y voters are more likely than any other generation to call themselves independents. According to the National Election Study, nearly 47 percent of voters under 30 called themselves independents in 2000. Trends in voting for third-party candidates confirmed it. In 1998, Jesse Ventura won 46 percent of the under-30 vote, compared with 29 percent among older voters. In 2000, Nader received 5 percent of the vote from those under 30, compared with 2 percent among voters over 30 years of age.

The View From the 20s

These numbers reflect a complicated worldview. The youngest generation of voters is cynical about politics but attracted to independent candidates. It leans Democratic, unlike Generation X, but its attitudes do not neatly mirror the agenda that has developed in the Democratic -- or, for that matter, the Republican -- Party. In fact, its mix of liberal and conservative perspectives do not map neatly onto any party's current platform.

For example, younger voters hold more expansive notions about the responsibilities of government than do older voters; at the same time, they are very individualistic about problem solving and supportive of market solutions. These seemingly contradictory views reflect a national narrative in the 1990s that included Bill Clinton's progressive vision of the role of government in people's lives and the country's simultaneous insistence that we end "welfare as we know it."

Almost 70 percent of voters under 30 support bigger government over smaller government, and nearly two-thirds of young people between 15 and 25 years of age think that government should do more to solve people's problems.

Nonetheless, young people support the privatization of Social Security, private health insurance for prescription drugs and school vouchers. The data suggest that young people generally want government to "care," but they do not have well-developed ideas about how that might work.

The nation's youngest voters are by far its most socially liberal voters. For instance, 72 percent of those between 18 and 24 agree that there should be "laws that provide gay and lesbian couples who form civil unions the same legal rights as married couples when it comes to things like inheritance, employer-provided health insurance and hospital visits." More than half of adults under 30 think that gays and lesbians should have a legal right to get married, compared with just 37 percent of baby boomers and 20 percent of seniors. Younger voters are also more supportive of affirmative action than the rest of the electorate and hold a more positive view of immigrants.

But this liberalism is not necessarily tied to other social issues. It does not translate into more support for abortion rights, feminism or relaxed sexual mores. People under 30 are no more pro-choice than their predecessors who fought for abortion rights in the '60s and '70s. Unlike the Baby Boom Generation, which linked many issues such as civil rights, abortion choice, women's rights and sexual freedom into a coherent agenda, Gen Y is untroubled by simultaneous expressions of open-mindedness and traditionalism.

The Youth Agenda

While everyone bemoans the fact that young people do not participate in politics, neither major party has done much to reach out to them. In the last three election cycles, the Democrats have focused on seniors' issues such as retirement security and prescription drugs. It is remarkable that the party has maintained an edge with young voters given this utter disconnection from them. The Republican Party's emphasis on tax cuts has tapped into a concern of young people (especially those without a college education), but its stances on gay rights and the environment have been fundamentally at odds with young voters' values.

Both parties have largely chosen to communicate the same, older-oriented message to all voters. But young voters have a different set of concerns than their elders. For instance, everyone is worried about the economy, but older people feel the recession in the declining value of their 401(k)s and the rising cost of health insurance; the young, meanwhile, worry about job security and wages. Some 15.6 percent of people between ages 18 and 24 are currently without jobs, compared with 6.4 percent in the total population, and unemployment rates are skyrocketing among minority youth.

Young voters' concerns about education -- consistently one of their top interests -- are also distinct. They support more funding and smaller class sizes for grades K-12, but they also are having a difficult time paying for college, whether that means a four-year bachelor's degree from a prestigious university or an associate's degree from a community college. The need to work while in school and the later burden of paying off student loans put an enormous financial strain on the many young people whose parents can't foot the full bill. Today's rising tuitions, the less generous federal loan policies embedded in the new tax code and the cuts in state budgets for higher education can only exacerbate this situation.

Generation Y also places a higher priority on environmental issues than older voters. Significantly more young people -- especially young men -- oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, for example, than older voters, and they are more likely to say that protecting the environment is more important than developing new sources of energy and encouraging economic growth.

There is a populist, progressive agenda that could reflect young people's core values and priorities -- and, indeed, lend them some coherence. It would call on government to actively provide opportunities for people to acquire the skills and resources they need to succeed in life. It would not, however, encourage dependence on government but instead offer the means for self-improvement and self-reliance. Such a platform would call for individuals to take personal responsibility for their behavior, government to protect the earth's natural resources, and society to be open to difference and diversity.

But there is also a conservative agenda that might win over Generation Y. This platform would invoke personal responsibility in matters economic, as well as sexual. It would emphasize what government takes away from individuals (tax dollars, for instance) and the role markets might play in solving their problems. Certainly conservatives would have to be mindful of the racial diversity and social liberalism of this generation, but these young voters are not beyond their reach.

For the moment, Generation Y has stopped the national slide into Republicanism and offers a more optimistic and open view of the future. But politically it remains very much up for grabs -- and adrift in a political culture that offers stale political leadership and old ways of talking about politics. In a country split 50-50 politically, the side that successfully speaks to this generation may well be the side that wins.

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