There’s Always A Generation Gap If You Know Where to Look

A recent Pew Research Center survey suggests that generational conflict in the U.S. has significantly declined in the 40 years since Woodstock, NY symbolized the sharp differences between the Baby Boom Generation (born 1946-1964) and its elders. A plurality (38%) believes that strife between the generations has diminished since the late 1960's and early 1970s. Boomers are especially likely to believe that inter-generational strife is less severe than it was four decades ago: 43% of them believe it has declined. Now only a quarter (26%) of Americans perceive that there are very strong or strong conflicts between young people and older people, far less than those detecting significant discord between immigrants and people born in the United States (55%), rich and poor people (47%) and blacks and whites (39%).

But, as generational theorists, William Strauss and Neil Howe indicate, generational conflict, like the poor, is always with us. A deeper analysis of the Pew data suggests that what has changed is not so much the fact of generational conflict, but its tone. Young people and their elders may not shout at one another across the generation gap as they did four decades ago, but they still appear to differ in many ways.


Young and older people different

Young and older people similar

Way they use computers/new technology



Music they like



Their work ethic



Their moral values



Respect they show others



Their political views



Their attitudes toward different races and groups



Their religious beliefs



The American public is right in perceiving a continuing generational conflict, at least with regard to politics. Today's young people, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) are sharply distinctive from older generations in their political attitudes, identifications, and behavior. These differences will strongly benefit the Democrats and the progressive movement, but only both of those forces have the foresight and courage to take advantage of the opportunity that the emerging Millennial Generation offers. The Democratic Party and Barack Obama clearly benefitted from it in 2006 and 2008 winning first a large, presumably unassailable, majority in both houses of Congress and later the White House. Since then, however, the Democrats seem intent on frittering away the sizeable gift that the electorate, led by the Millennials, has given them.

The stakes in firmly capturing the loyalties of the Millennial Generation couldn't be higher. At 95 million, Millennials are the largest generation in American history. There are now 17 million more Millennials than there are surviving Baby Boomers and 27 million more of them than there are members of Generation X (born 1965-1981), the relatively small generation between Boomers and Millennials. In 2008, when only 40% of Millennials were eligible to vote, they accounted for about 17% of the electorate. In 2012, when Barack Obama runs for reelection, about 60% of Millennials will be old enough to vote and they will comprise nearly a quarter of the electorate. By 2020, when virtually all members of the generation will be at least 18 years old, more than one in three voters will be a Millennial. This will put Millennials in position to dominate American politics, as has no other generation before them.

So far, by any measure, the Millennial Generation has been solidly liberal and Democratic. In 2008 Millennials voted for Barack Obama over John McCain 66% to 32%, accounting for about 80% of the president's popular vote majority and converting what would have been a narrow win into a solid one. Millennials also gave Democratic congressional candidates almost the same level of support that they gave Obama (66% vs. 34%). And, as indicated in a June 2009 Pew survey, Millennials identify or lean to the Democrats over the Republicans by nearly 2:1.



Generation X

Baby Boomers

Silent and older generations

Democrat/lean Democrat





Independent not leaning to a party





Republican/lean Republican





Finally, Millennials are the first generation in at least four to contain a greater number of self-perceived liberals than conservatives.

In their attitudes, Millennials are "liberal interventionists" in the economy, "tolerant non-meddlers" on social issues, and "activist multilateralists" in international affairs.



Older Generations

Strongly concerned that government will become too involved in health care



Agree that government regulation of business does more harm than good



Agree free market economy needs government regulation to serve the public interest



Agree that federal government controls too much of our daily lives



Agree when something is run by government it is usually wasteful and inefficient



Agree government is run for the benefit of all



Agree stricter laws and regulations needed to protect the environment



Agree government investment needed to develop new energy technology



Agree that government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep



Agree that immigrants threaten American values and customs



Agree that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to gain legal status



Agree that free trade agreements like NAFTA are a good thing



Agree that peace best assured through military strength



Completely disagree that women should return to their traditional place in society



Decades of political research indicates that, for most people, once attitudes, identifications, and behaviors like these are formed during youth they tend to remain in force for the rest of their lives. Coupled with the sheer size of the Millennial Generation, this gives the Democratic Party an opportunity to dominate American politics for at least the next four decades.

Are Barack Obama and the Democratic Party taking advantage of this opportunity and maintaining the loyalty of the Millennial Generation, especially during the past several months as the president's approval rating has declined? The picture is mixed. On the one hand, as Daily Kos tracking surveys data indicate, Obama and his party have lost ground, albeit much less sharply, among Millennials just as they have among the electorate as a whole. Since January, favorable opinions of the president have fallen by 17-percentage points among all voters, but only by five points among Millennials. Similarly, positive attitudes toward the Democratic Party have declined by 12 points within the entire electorate, but by just two among Millennials. At the same time, Millennials remain significantly more positive toward Barack Obama and the Democratic Party than older generations.

Moreover, Democratic losses among Millennials (indeed among all voters) have not been matched by Republican gains. In fact, the GOP has lost more ground since the first days of the Obama administration than either the president or the Democratic Party. Since January positive impressions of the GOP have been cut in half among all voters and, among Millennials, have dwindled to nearly the vanishing point (only 4%).


Total Electorate / Millennials January

Total Electorate / Millennials March

Total Electorate / Millennials May

Total Electorate / Millennials July

Total Electorate / Millennials August

Favorable opinions of Barack Obama

77% / 87%

68 / 83%

68% / 83%

62% / 82%

60% / 82%

Favorable opinions of the Democratic Party

57% / 63%

55% / 64%

52% / 63%

48% / 62%

45% / 61%

Favorable opinions of the Republican Party

34% / 26%

29% / 12%

20% / 6%

21% / 6%

17% / 4%

All of this raises the question of why the administration and congressional Democrats have persisted in their well-intentioned, but now clearly ill-advised and so-far never ending effort to enlist significant Republican support on virtually all important parts of President Obama's legislative program.

The directive delivered to Democrats by voters last November couldn't have been clearer. A post-election CNN survey indicated that 59% of the electorate favored the idea of the Democrats controlling both elective branches of the federal government. Only 38% said that one-party rule was a bad idea. A Wall Street Journal poll completed at the same time confirmed those results and presented the rationale for them: when the same party controls both Congress and the presidency, "it will end gridlock in Washington and things will get done."

In spite of this, Democrats in Washington have continued to pursue the chimera of bipartisanship. The response from across the aisle was a political version of Mohammed Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy: induce the opponent to expend major energy, accomplish nothing, and exhaust himself in the process. This recently reached the ultimate absurdity when the GOP's most visible health insurance reform negotiator in the Senate, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, said that he wouldn't vote for a bill that he himself had negotiated except in the very unlikely event that large numbers of his fellow Republicans would join him. That is why rumors that the administration and congressional Democrats may now finally be willing to go it alone in passing health care insurance are encouraging. It's been a hard lesson to learn, but better late than never.

However, to avoid missteps in the future, the Bible (and election and poll results) offers a plan: "a child shall lead them" and "out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom." The answer is with the emerging liberal and Democratic Millennial Generation on the youthful side of today's version of the generation gap. If Democrats and progressives go there, they will prosper now and in the future.