Generational Politics: Just What is the Big Deal about the Generations?
A common theme in the study of political behavior is the seemingly never-ending discussion of generations — in particular, Baby Boomers and Millennials. Due to their enormous sizes, they hold a prominent place in discussions of political science and how to turn voters out of from these groups. Of course, other generations like Generation X are important as well, but talk of the generations seems to focus on Baby Boomers and Millennials the vast majority of the time, at times almost as if the other generations don’t matter.
Something that gets lost in the discussion, however, is why exactly we care so much about generations in political science. It can ostensibly feel like the vast majority of discourse on the subject is merely there for analysts to toot their horns and tout theories that have “solved” various aspects of generational politics, sometimes even tweaking data, cut-off years, etc. simply to suit their beliefs. Pundits often get so carried away with the generational labels themselves that they somewhat lose their meanings.
So, why should we care about so much about generational politics? Why can’t there ever be even remote consensus on what years make up the generations? What exactly makes a Millennial a Millennial, a Generation Xer a Generation Xer, a Baby Boomer a Baby Boomer, and so on? What are the implications of being in a particular generation? We explore these questions and more in today’s topic.
The idea of generations isn’t a new one, being posited since at least the latter half of the 19th century. However, it was popularized by two researchers named Neil Howe and William Strauss. Writing about generational theory in their 1991 book Generations, they are also responsible for coining the term “Millennial.”¹ ² Perhaps their even more famous work on generations is The Fourth Turning, in which they predict a particularly perilous time in history soon in the future based on their studies of history. The main idea is that history follows a cycle of four generations, after which “the fourth turning” brings about monumental institutional and societal changes and the cycle repeats. Their theory certainly isn’t without its detractors, but it does make for some interesting discussion.
What Years Make-Up Which Generations?
We hear the labels that each generation goes by so often that it may seem like there are agreed-upon boundaries by which these generations are boxed in. But that is far from the truth. When the Pew Research Center explicitly made their definition of Millennial as a person born between 1981 and 1996, it was actually a big news story. Pew themselves had even used different cut-off years to define them. Practically everywhere you go, however, somebody else has a different definition. Then you have to bring in the non-Millennial generations into the equation.
There are rough approximations to go by for birth years, though. Millennials are pegged roughly between the early or mid-1980s and late 1990s or even 2000 (after all, Millennial comes in part from “millennium”). Generation X is somewhere around the late 1960s to the early or mid-1980s. Baby Boomers are considered to be sometime around the end of World War II in 1945 to the early 1960s. The Silent Generation is about the late 1920s to the early 1940s. The earliest named generation, the Greatest Generation, takes the rest of the early 20th century. The Lost Generation comes before the Greatest Generation and Generation Z comes after Millennials.
What are the Generations?
It should be noted that there shouldn’t be too much focus on explicit boundaries for when one has to be born to be considered a particular generation. The years used are almost completely arbitrary and they don’t quite get at the essence of what a generation is. Generations are primarily defined by some basic shared experiences from the era they were born in and particularly those experiences when they come of age. These could be a particularly concrete event in history, a broad movement, or other significant social shift. Also, note that some generations have multiple names or had names prior to what they are called now.
Below are the generations and what are considered some common experiences:
- The Lost Generation: The most significant event associated with this generation is World War I, waged from 1914 to 1918 (although the United States was not in the war initially). They were “lost” in how disillusioned this generation was in the post-war world, mostly due to the immense destruction of the Great War (what World War I was called prior to World War II) but various other changes as well. The term “lost generation” was coined by writer Gertrude Stein and popularized by Ernest Hemingway.³ There are no longer any living members of the Lost Generation and they seem to almost always be forgotten relative to the other generations, another couple of ways that the “lost” moniker fits.
- The GI/Greatest Generation: This generation lived through or were born in the “Roaring ‘20s,” only to be confronted with the despair of the Great Depression. Yet they started coming of age in World War II, with many of them enlisting in military service and receiving benefits through the G.I. Bill following the end of the war (hence the “GI Generation” nickname). Others aided in the war effort in some other way, such as women who were not allowed to fight in it (leading to the famous image of Rosie the Riveter) or the general American public taking limited rations so that the many soldiers in the war could have sufficient amounts of food. Former broadcaster Tom Brokaw coined the “Greatest Generation” nickname due to their initially harsh experiences only to come out on top and exemplify the American spirit.
- The Silent Generation: The Silent Generation was named as such due to their tendencies to conform to the norms of their day. They became sandwiched in between World War II (which they were too young to fight in) and the rebellious attitude of many American youths in the 1960s. To say that nothing momentous in history happened for them or that they were totally conformist in every way is certainly a misnomer, however. They were around for the birth of rock n’ roll, many voted in the 1952 presidential election where Dwight Eisenhower handily defeated Adlai E. Stevenson, participated in the early civil rights demonstrations, and witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy.⁴
- The Baby Boomers: Along with the Millennials, the Baby Boomers grab most of the headlines. They are currently the most numerous generation, with Millennials right behind them. Born in the Baby Boom following World War II, Baby Boomers saw all sorts of major historical occurrences as they came of age. Rock n’ roll came to the forefront with musical artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Elvis Presley, just to name a few. Many were also defined by a rebellious streak, most notably with their association with Woodstock and the Summer of Love in 1969. They also witnessed the passage of the 26th Amendment (which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21), Richard Nixon’s resignation after Watergate, and the appointment of the Supreme Court’s first black justice Thurgood Marshall.⁴
- Generation X: Of all the generations, Generation X may be hardest to give a broad definition to. This generation’s parents followed up the Baby Boom with rising divorce rates, decreased fertility rates, and the rise of the “latchkey generation” and dual-income families. A wide variety of specific historical events and technological changes characterized Generation X. The Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down, signaling the fall of communism. MTV rose to prominence (back when it actually was predominantly known for its music videos), the Internet was in its infancy, apartheid in South Africa fell just like the Berlin Wall, Apple started selling its Macintosh computers, and early video game consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System were populating households.⁴
- Millennials/Generation Y: Arguably the most scrutinized of all the generations, Millennials have been taking over the workforce in various ways and have all reached adulthood. One of the most notable characteristics is their immense racial diversity. Millennials are arguably the first generation to truly harness the power of technology and its ever-increasing efficiency. The Millennial generation is particularly marked by events such as the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent heightened scrutiny, the down-to-the-wire 2000 presidential election, and (similarly to the Silent Generation’s experience with the Great Depression) felt the sting of the Great Recession.
- Centennials/Generation Z/Post-Millennials: Generation Z is sometimes lobbed in with Millennials even though they are quite different in many respects. Perhaps their most defining characteristic is the fact that they have never known a world without the kind of technology that dominates today. At most, they were only babies before the inceptions of YouTube and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Even many millennials had some experiences prior to the rise of personal computers, let alone smartphones and social media. Due to their youth, Generation Z doesn’t have a “true” name yet. Because they are so young, there are no clearly defining events for them, although perhaps events like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school massacre in Parkland, Florida may come to be one. Very few have even graduated from high school, making it nearly impossible to come up with a basic definition for them like all of the other generations. (It’s also unclear if the generation after them is being born yet.)
But Why Do Generations Matter So Much in Politics?
We’ve expounded somewhat on what generations are and how they are defined, but you may be asking why their importance for politics has been barely discussed. The previous sections were meant as a primer and lead-in to this very topic.
While generations are obviously not monolithic in their political views, their politics are inevitably shaped in large part based on the experiences that their generation is most associated with. With the Lost Generation no longer with us and the few members of the G.I. and Silent Generations still alive, their effect on politics is largely glossed over in political discussions. (However, the Silent Generation is the only one of the latest four generations that Pew Research Center data indicates has more Republican identifiers than Democratic.) Centennials are still too young to have a serious impact just yet. This leaves us with the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials taking up the vast majority of the discourse (although Generation X can seemingly get pushed to the sidelines often).
Advancements in healthcare leading to longer lifespans, and the vast number of members in the generation, makes programs like Social Security especially salient for the Baby Boomers. The AARP is a powerful interest group that mobilizes very quickly where such programs are concerned. While some of their G.I. and Silent Generation predecessors were the first to be able to make use of Social Security, it is the Baby Boomers who are most associated with that and other programs like Medicaid given how many of them rely on said programs. Since Baby Boomers are much more consistent voters than younger voters, officeholders often see little incentive to make huge changes to these programs.
Since younger voters vote at lower rates, Millennials have a significant amount of potential political influence that they have not made ample use of. Many predictions peg 2019 as the year that Millennials surpass the Baby Boomer Generation in population, meaning they arguably have even more room to affect politics than their older counterparts. The racial diversity of the generation has also led to a resurgence of racial issues back to the spotlight, such as racial profiling.
They have been taking over the workforce for some time now as well, making the always-salient economy even more important for them. The economy’s importance manifests itself in a variety of ways for Millennials. Rising income equality has become a more frequently discussed topic. Some Millennials cite this and other economic issues in their support for socialism, to which Baby Boomers and Generation X were much more resistant to. The face of socialism, at least for this younger generation, is freshman U.S. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Of course, there are a lot of other Millennials of a wide variety of political persuasions that are entering in politics in large numbers, even though Ocasio-Cortez may be one of the most visible. Yet while younger voters tend to lean more liberal and Democratic, it would be a stretch to say that the generation tends to lean heavily that way. Millennials, more than any other generation, are more likely to self-identify as political independents.⁵ There is a growing dissatisfaction with the two major parties among this generation. Still, many more of them are Democratic/liberal or lean that way than those that are Republican/conservative or lean that way.
And what about Generation X? In some ways, they are politically in-between Millennials and Baby Boomers. Generation X has many more independent identifiers than Baby Boomers, although they aren’t as numerous as in the Millennials Generation.⁵ There is also a noticeable gender divide in partisan affiliation among Generation Xers that is larger than that for Baby Boomers but much less than for Millennials.
Terrorism is far from a new thing, and it is Generation X that grew up or came of age at a time to see its rise. While many Millennials can remember the 9/11 attacks and have known heightened security measures for a large portion of their lives, there were plenty of major acts of terror that Generation X witnessed. A couple of these examples include the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics when 11 Israeli Olympians were murdered.
The Reagan Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism would also endear many Generation Xers to the Republican Party and conservative political philosophy. Generation Xers may seemingly not get the same news coverage that Baby Boomers and Millennials do, but they still play a large role in politics and many of them are in various political positions both in lawmaking positions and far beyond.
Of course, many books could be written about all the political influences of the generations and vice versa, and many already have been. The previous paragraphs, hopefully, have given a decent sense of the broad reciprocal influences of politics and the generations.
The Future of Generational Politics and Political Science
The future has been touched upon slightly. As time marches on, the political power of the Baby Boomer Generation will slightly dwindle away, but it’s far from ceding away its political potency. It’s completely up in the air how exactly Centennials will impact the political process given their age. Millennials will start voting in larger numbers as they get older, but their relatively low turnout rates make them less consistently impactful on politics than their Baby Boomer and Generation X counterparts. But Millennials may start having a more monumental impact on politics before you know it as more of them continue to enter the political arena.
- William Cummings. “Millennials defined as people born between 1981 and 1996, Pew decides.” March 1, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/03/01/millennials-defined/386562002/.
- NPR. “From GIs To Gen Z (Or Is It iGen?): How Generations Get Nicknames.” October 6, 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/10/06/349316543/don-t-label-me-origins-of-generational-names-and-why-we-use-them.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Lost Generation.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lost-Generation (accessed January 9, 2019).
- NPR. “What’s The Defining Moment Of Your Generation?” https://www.npr.org/2011/11/02/141930849/whats-the-defining-moment-of-your-generation (accessed January 9, 2019).
- Pew Research Center. “Trends in party affiliation among demographic groups.” http://www.people-press.org/2018/03/20/1-trends-in-party-affiliation-among-demographic-groups/ (accessed January 10, 2019).