There is a wide and growing generational gap in political views among Americans, according to recent reports by the Pew Research Center. Millennials in particular have adopted perspectives far to the left of older Americans. Gen Xers, also, to a lesser extent, indicate a long period ahead of rising power for progressive politics, as the stalwart generations of conservatives die out.
This isn’t to say that there are no conservative Millennials and Gen Xers, and no progressive older Americans, but that the relative percentages within the generations are changing.
Many older conservatives no doubt will comfort themselves with the old saw that people grow more conservative as they age. There used to be wide support for this view, based on following earlier generations through the post-World War II period. “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head,” is the oft-repeated phrase coined in the 1800s by the French monarchist François Guizot, with “republican” replaced by “liberal” in the US.
Over the past several decades, however, research in the US has shown this to be largely a myth. Instead, the largest factor is early political experiences. Cohorts born during the same period don’t show all that much change as they age. A more liberal cohort is going to remain more liberal, while a more conservative one is going to remain more conservative. As a Pew report from 2014 put it:
On an individual level, of course, many people’s political views evolve over the course of their lives. But academic research indicates not only that generations have distinct political identities, but that most people’s basic outlooks and orientations are set fairly early on in life. As one famous longitudinal study of Bennington College women put it, “through late childhood and early adolescence, attitudes are relatively malleable…with the potential for dramatic change possible in late adolescence or early adulthood. [B]ut greater stability sets in at some early point, and attitudes tend to be increasingly persistent as people age.”
For Millennials, those experiences are drawing them heavily to the left:
Millennial voters (born 1981 to 1996) have had a Democratic tilt since they first entered adulthood; this advantage has only grown as they have aged.
Democrats enjoy a 27-percentage-point advantage among Millennial voters (59% are Democrats or lean Democratic, 32% are Republican or lean Republican). In 2014, 53% of Millennial voters were Democrats or leaned Democratic, 37% tilted toward the GOP.
Gen Xers (born 1965-1980), too, lean Democratic, but by a smaller percentage, 48-43, while Baby Boomers (1946-1964) are almost evenly split, 48-46. The Silent Generation (1928-1945) is the only one that leans Republican (52-43 percent).
You can find a lot more details by visiting the Pew Center’s descriptions of these two recent reports, including variations by race, sex and religion. But the upshot is that as Millennials assume positions of power in the country, they will lead from an overall worldview that is well to the left of current establishment politics:
Millennials remain the most liberal and Democratic of the adult generations. They continue to be the most likely to identify with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic. In addition, far more Millennials than those in older generational cohorts favor the Democratic candidate in November’s midterm congressional elections.
In fact, in an early test of midterm voting preferences (in January), 62% of Millennial registered voters said they preferred a Democratic candidate for Congress in their district this fall, which is higher than the shares of Millennials expressing support for the Democratic candidate in any midterm dating back to 2006, based on surveys conducted in midterm years.
Photo: Pew Research Center graph