Why is the younger generation so apathetic

Generation Z is on the rise. It could completely transform America's political landscape

American politics are shaped by new, young and female faces. The new forces are more radical, committed and socialist than the incumbent. The war of the generations has only just begun and will shape the US for decades to come. How will this change the country?

"There is a mysterious cycle in the course of human events," said Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was elected Democratic presidential candidate in 1936. “Some generations are given a lot. Much is asked of others. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with fate. "

In the 20th century, many sociologists and historians flirted with the idea that generational change could explain American politics. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. were of the opinion that with the successive generations an inevitable cycle between left-liberal and conservative consensus would be kept going. More recently, William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their theory of the “fourth revolution”, predicted a crisis-ridden change and political reorganization every eighty to ninety years.

We, the authors of this article, are skeptical of cyclical theories of history; We are also aware that there are pitfalls in carrying out political analysis on the basis of generations. Karl Mannheim rightly pointed out that generations are not defined by age alone, but also by shared historical experiences that shaped their youth. Still, we believe that a generation gap is opening up in America that may end up being more momentous than the racial and class differences that political analysis tends to focus on.

Generations without prospects

Young Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often called radical, but the data shows that her views are close to the average of what her generation thinks. Millennials and Generation Z - that is, Americans between the ages of 18 and 38 - are generations who have been given little and who are asked a lot. Young Americans struggle with the burden of their student loans and credit card debt. Their real wages are stagnating and they have little opportunity to save anything.

Under other circumstances, these generations might well have turned to the Republican Tea Party, which wanted to do away with privileges (especially if the party was serious about it). Instead, we are seeing a shift to the left among young voters, which manifests itself in almost all political issues, be they economic or cultural.

The Democrats are increasingly becoming the party of the young, especially the Millennials (born 1981–1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996). The Republicans, on the other hand, rely more and more on retired people, especially the silent generation born before 1945. In between are Generation X (born 1965–1980), who are slowly moving to the left, and the baby boomers (1946–1964), who tend to tend to the right.

In the mid-term elections of 2018, the aging Democratic party leadership began to feel the ground slipping from under their feet.

This generation-based reorientation of the parties will have a profound impact on the future of American politics. In the 2020 elections, the generation change will not yet dramatically change the character of the electorate, especially if the turnout of boys remains at the historical average. But the parties are already feeling the beginning of change, as the prevailing age group is using its power to elect candidates and help shape the political agenda.

America moves to the left

Political power in Washington is firmly in the hands of the older generations. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, and Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, are members of the silent generation, as are Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who are currently believed to have the greatest chance of winning the 2020 primary election. President Trump and the large midfield of senators and MPs are baby boomers. Of the nine judges on the Supreme Court, two are from the silent generation and six from the boomers. The average age of Americans, however, is around 38 years - in the range of millennials.

In the mid-term elections last year, the aging Democratic party leadership began to feel the ground slipping from under their feet. For decades, the party was in the grip of the moderates, and it is still primarily boomers and members of the silent generation that hold the most important posts. But newly elected members - including 14 millennials and 32 from Generation X - are now setting the pace in the discussion about the direction of the party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her proposal for a Green New Deal.

If Roosevelt was right and demographics determine fate, then the Democrats are in for a golden age. Ten years from now, Generation Z and Millennials should make up the majority of the American electorate; in twenty years their share of the vote could be 62 percent.

Unsurprisingly, many young voters are in favor of economic policies that Ocasio-Cortez describes as "socialist".

If the Democrats manage to organize these two generations into a political bloc, the consequences are likely to have far-reaching consequences. Core concerns of the left-liberals - health insurance for everyone, debt relief on student loans, reforms to immigration, perhaps even a version of the costly Green New Deal - have a good chance of becoming law. States that are now firmly in republican hands could be democratic, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist could become president.

The Republicans, on the other hand, could emerge as losers from demographic change. If they cannot find a means of curbing the migration of young voters to the left, then the party will only survive if it succeeds in attracting older voters to its side so quickly and in such large numbers that the tendency to the left is offset among the young .

What young voters could change

Millennials' discomfort in the current economic environment is understandable. Even higher education has become a losing option for many young Americans. In 2016, a year at a private college cost 78 percent of an average household income. Most families can hardly afford to send a single child to college without taking out a loan; but young workers without a college degree are massively disadvantaged in the job market.

As a result, young people find it difficult to survive financially after graduation; among millennials, average household wealth has fallen by 40 percent since 2007. Not because this generation eats too much avocado toast, but because repaying student loans uses up that part of the income that could otherwise be saved.

So it is not surprising that many young voters are in favor of an economic policy that Ocasio-Cortez describes as "socialist". A survey by Harvard University has shown that 66 percent of those under the age of 25 would support a standard health insurance fund. 63 percent want free tuition at public universities, just as many support Ocasio-Cortez ’proposal that the state should guarantee a sufficient number of jobs. Generation Z would also like to see a “militant and strong labor movement”.

Young voters are also far to the left of the center when it comes to other economic and socio-political issues. In particular, they take offense at the immigration policy of the Trump administration. While Americans over the age of 35 are roughly equally for and against the proposed border wall, nearly 80 percent of younger voters oppose it.

Generation Z distrusts the president, Congress, the financial world, the press and the social media platforms where young people mainly get information - Facebook and Twitter. In principle, she does not trust the federal government either; nevertheless, she sees this as the only authority that can protect the workers from the power of the big corporations. And many Gen Z or Millennial people still believe that the government should do more to solve societal problems.

Even young Republicans are affected by this left-wing drift. Of Gen Z Republicans, only 60 percent are satisfied with Trump's performance, while the approval rating across the party base is around 90 percent. Thus Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is neither an exceptional case nor a radical. If you take the political attitudes of younger Americans as a yardstick, it is close to the middle.

Three challenges

Will the Democrats succeed in turning this tectonic shift into an election victory? Possible, but not certain. If the party wants to rely on its younger, progressive wing, it has to face three challenges.

The first is abstinence from voting, which is widespread among young people. The Democrats have been trying for decades to lure young Americans to the polls. They partnered with organizations like Rock the Vote to make voting hip and cool, invested a lot of money in micro-targeting on social media, and experimented with apps; but they have never been able to mobilize enough young voters to win a close election. Since 1980, the percentage of eligible voters between the ages of 20 and 30 who cast their votes in the presidential elections has been 40 to 50 percent. In the case of voters who are 45 years or older, the figure is between 65 and 75 percent.

Many Democratic leaders view the newcomers as radicals.

It is true that the likelihood that people will go to the polls increases with age. However, overall voter turnout is falling, especially among 30 to 44 year olds. So the Democrats have to prove to the young voters that their votes make a political difference; if this does not succeed, they will only work their way out to mobilize a generation that has become apathetic and has turned its back on politics.

The second challenge for Democrats is that most established leaders are older and many of them view the newcomers as radicals, or at least problematic. Nancy Pelosi has distanced herself from the Green New Deal. When the newly elected MP Ilhan Omar criticized Trump's Israel policy in what was perceived as anti-Semitic, the Democrats in the House of Representatives turned against her. Such conflicts could lead to a rupture within the party.

When young people organize, they do it in their own way: that is the third challenge. Between 1.4 and 2.3 million people took part in the March for Our Lives in 2018, organized by survivors of the Parkland school massacre. Democratic candidates took up the concerns of the students and placed a focus on tightening gun laws in their campaign. This motivated an above-average number of 18 to 29-year-olds to vote. But it was the boys who set the agenda, not the other way around.

By the mid-2020s, Democrats will have no option but to focus on the issues that matter to young voters. Today, 43 percent of those who consider themselves Democrats are Millennials or Generation Z; we estimate it will be around 50 percent in 2024. And then voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's will set the tone.

Stimulus word socialism

Does all of this mean that the Republicans are nearing their end? Not necessarily. As younger voters have moved to the left, Republicans have kept their base by attracting more and more older voters. But the members of the silent generation are at least in their mid-seventies today; Republicans must hurry if they are to get enough politically indecisive baby boomers to their side in time.

How does that work? Tax cuts are part of the strategy, but that alone will no longer lure voters out from behind the stove. A significant move, however, was Trump's February State of the Union address, in which he drew a direct line between the Maduro regime in Venezuela and the emerging new Democratic agenda. "Tonight we are once again expressing our determination," announced the president, "that America will never become a socialist country."

Trump is doing everything possible to stir up older voters' fears of what they consider to be an alarming social change.

A small but growing number of prominent Democrats no longer bothers the label “socialist” - or Bernie Sanders ’self-definition as a“ democratic socialist ”. The Republicans smelled blood there. It may be that more than half of young voters have a positive image of socialism, but of all age groups over 30, a substantial majority prefer capitalism. Perhaps the Democrats will be able to normalize the word “socialist” by 2020; for the time being, however, it represents a considerable handicap in a national election.

A new culture war

It has already been mentioned that Trump's planned construction of the wall is not well received by young voters. This also reflects a crucial difference between the generations - namely the ethnic composition. 85 percent of the silent generation are white, only 12 percent are African American or Latinos. In Generation X, on the other hand, there are only 54 percent whites compared to 38 percent Afro-Americans and Latinos; also a much larger part of this generation describes themselves as multiracial.

The negative attitude towards immigration is not based solely on factors such as fear of wage dumping or housing shortages. There is also a strong cultural component to it - and Donald Trump is doing everything possible to stir up older voters' fears of what they consider to be an alarming social change.

The Republicans will do their utmost to exploit the potential for political correctness to divide.

Still, Republicans have to work hard to win over older baby boomers, who don't like to see themselves branded as racists. Therefore one tries to extend the culture war to other arenas. According to a December 2018 poll, a clear majority of Americans under 29 want their country to become "more politically correct"; among voters over 30, on the other hand, almost two thirds are against such a development. The Republicans will make every effort to exploit this potential for divide.

Left-wing liberals may counter that social values ​​can change surprisingly quickly. Wouldn't it be possible for political correctness - just like gay marriage or the consumption of hashish - to move from taboo to a matter of course?

Rather not. Gay marriage was about the legal status of a minority; in the case of political correctness, on the other hand, linguistic norms are discussed that affect everyone. For many older voters - and not just for conservatives - the campus has become a strange parallel world of “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings” and gender-neutral pronouns. Republicans could put these higher education policies on the national agenda, hoping to steer older Democrats and middle-aged baby boomers away from their political rivals, who are increasingly indulging in politically correct values.

Who wins?

However, Trump's strategy of wooing the silent generation in particular with issues such as immigration, political correctness and the horrors of socialism is not a long-term solution for the Republicans. The more they downgrade the concerns of the younger generations, the more they risk forging this segment of the electorate into a solid left-wing bloc with their own hands.

After 2020, the silent generation will gradually disappear from the scene. This is at exactly the time when it is very likely that young, more left-wing voters will vote in greater numbers. The Republicans may then try to portray the Democrats as radical socialists and fuel the culture war as much as they can. The Democrats, on the other hand, could focus on health care to avoid internal divisions, as there is consensus between older and young party members on this issue.

One black swan could turn today's children into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's worst nightmare.

America’s political future depends to a large extent on the war of the generations.If Millennials and Generation Z manage to unite in a bipartisan bloc, then within ten years they will dominate US politics and the Democrats will follow suit. But if the Republicans manage to use the culture war to win over enough baby boomers to their side, then Trumpism could have a longer life than many currently believe.

When Roosevelt spoke of the "rendez-vous with fate" that would be destined for the younger generation at the time, no one in the audience suspected that this fate would take the form of another world war. Democratic presidential candidates like to use similarly high-flying words. Barack Obama often quoted Martin Luther King: "The arc of the moral universe is wide, but it leans towards justice." On the night of November 8, 2016, many Democrats simply could not imagine that this arc would now lean towards Trump.

Be careful with forecasts

Cyclical theories that try to explain and predict political change on the basis of generational change should be treated with caution. If Mannheim's thesis is correct that generations are shaped by important events in their youth, then - who knows - a single black swan could transform today's children into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's worst nightmare: Generation T (like Trump). Aren't the President's critics happily suggesting that his vocabulary corresponds to that of a fourth grader? That's right, but that also means fourth graders can understand what Donald Trump is saying. In 2028, today's fourth graders will reach voting age. Maybe then they will be as politically correct as Generation Z is today. But history teaches us not to expect it without further ado.

In 1960, Friedrich Hayek predicted in “The Constitution of Freedom” that “most of those who retire at the end of the century will depend on the charity of the younger generation. And in the end it is not morality but the fact that the young are asking the police and the military that will decide the question: Concentration camps for the old, who cannot support themselves, will likely be the fate of an old generation whose incomes are perfect depends on a coercion on the younger ones. "

His prognosis did not come true - a warning to be heeded that it is far easier to identify conflicts of interest between the generations than to correctly predict their future political effects.

Niall Ferguson is co-director of the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School. Eyck Freymann works as a research analyst at the consulting firm Greenmantle. The abridged version of the article appeared in the original in "The Atlantic" magazine. Translated from the English by as.