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Millennials and Gen Xers Eclipse Boomers in the Voting Booth — but Will It Matter?

But population shift has yet to impact elections, researchers say

Millennials and Gen Xers have overtaken older generations as the largest voting bloc, the Pew Research Center reports. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Millennials and Gen Xers have overtaken older generations as the largest voting bloc, the Pew Research Center reports. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

American politics are on the cusp of a revolution. And it has nothing to do with President Donald Trump.

That’s because younger generations — who are generally more liberal and reluctant to identify with either political party — are overtaking their older counterparts for the first time since the baby boomers began to dominate every aspect of American life in the last half of the 20th century, researchers say.

A report from the Pew Research Center published this week found that millennials and Generation X voters outnumbered baby boomers and older generations for the first time ever in the 2016 presidential election. The report marks the latest milestone in a trend that demographers say will keep building for at least another 20 years. And while Pew includes Gen X voters in its report, millennials alone outnumber boomers as a whole and are driving the trend.

The population shift has yet to make a mark in elections. That’s partly because young people are less likely to vote. It’s partly because Republicans have been able to harness a backlash from older, white voters who fear their status is slipping. And it’s partly because Democrats have done a bad job so far in capitalizing on what should be an obvious advantage — a failure that cost them in 2016, population and political experts said.

As more millennials enter the voting pool — and as baby boomers die — demographers say the odds will shift in the Democrats’ favor, though some Republicans call such predictions overblown.

“For as long as most voters can remember, the baby boomers have always been the biggest bloc of voters,” said Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, who authored the report on the youth vote. “This is significant. They’re losing influence. They’re losing clout.”

The youngest adults

Millennials, defined by Pew as people aged 18 to 35 in 2016, have a vastly different political outlook and life experience than even their next-oldest peers (Gen Xers). The oldest among them came of age after the internet. The youngest were too young to remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Their adult years have been marked by political gridlock and economic recession. Forty-four percent of them are not white. And their numbers continue to rise as immigration adds more to their ranks than any other group, according to Pew.

“We have these two broad camps in America, one of them is older, whiter and more conservative and the other is younger, browner and more liberal,” said Paul Taylor, author of “The Next America,” which looked at the widening generation gap and the changes it would bring to American life.

As a group, millennials are suspicious of institutions — 26 percent of people aged 18 to 29 reported having no religious affiliation in 2009 compared to 3 percent in 1960, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University.  

In politics, that independent streak translates to a lack of allegiance to any political party. Forty-four percent of millennials were independents in 2016, compared to 39 percent of Gen Xers, according to Pew. But in practice, millennials tend to lean Democratic much more than their older counterparts.

In 2016, 55 percent of millennials identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, compared to 49 percent of Gen Xers, 46 percent of boomers and 43 percent in the silent generation. Millennials also take more liberal positions on social issues, including marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage.

Punching below their weight

Those statistics would indicate that Democrats already have a vast advantage. The problem is that — so far — they don’t vote at rates comparable to other generations.

“Millennials continue to punch below their weight,” Taylor said.

Millennials overtook baby boomers last year as the country’s largest generation and also caught up to them as a share of the U.S. electorate. But they cast only 25 percent of the votes in November, Pew has found. And election turnout among millennials is expected to drop by more than half in 2018.

The outcome of next year’s midterms, and future congressional elections, could depend in large part on whether political organizers can motivate millennials to turn up, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of CIRCLE at Tufts University. 

“Especially in congressional elections, there’s just not enough attention paid to the importance of mobilizing young people,” she said. 

The oldest millennials are midway through their 30s, a time when voter participation tends to increase as people have kids, buy houses and become more ingrained in their local communities. Immigration has also helped their ranks grow, more than other age groups, according to Pew. And the millennial population is not expected to peak until 2036.

“Even if turnout remains the same, the number eligible [to vote] will continue to grow,” said Fry, the author of the Pew study.

But so far, the data show that young people are not that motivated, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. A survey conducted by her organization last year found that while about 75 percent of young people were paying attention to the presidential election, only a quarter were paying attention to congressional elections

Reactions to the Trump administration could shift the tide, she said.

Trump, with his crackdown on border security, travel ban on nationals from certain Muslim-majority countries, and attempt to ban transgender people from the military, has made little effort to craft social policies that would appeal to many younger voters, Kawashima-Ginsberg and other observers said. 

In response, some liberal groups have stepped up efforts to recruit young people for leadership training programs and encourage them to run for office, according to Kawashima-Ginsberg. As young voters see more candidates who look like them and share their values, she said, they could be more likely to participate. 

But the reverse is also possible: Young people who don’t feel that either party represents their interests could give up on politics altogether, she said.

That’s also a danger for Republicans, Kawashima-Ginsberg added. Young, white males who voted for Trump last fall — a group that is typically less civically engaged than young people who voted for Clinton — might lose interest if they feel that he can’t provide the greater opportunities he promised working-class communities.

“That would be a missed opportunity,” she said. “If that kind of voter feels that their party isn’t really welcoming them with open arms, there is a pretty simple reaction, which is to react with apathy. They’ll probably not vote again, let alone be part of the party.”

The upshot

Some Republicans say the focus on demographics overlooks other factors that are more important to winning elections. 

“Guess what, old people die,” said Republican pollster Wes Anderson. “I think everybody is aware of that.”

He said voters traditionally become more conservative as they age, and that baby boomers — who came of age protesting the Vietnam War — have more recently helped Republicans win a greater share of state and federal elected offices than any time since the 1920s.

The idea that young people are locked-in for Democrats is, “crazy,” Anderson said, pointing out that Democratic efforts to motivate young voters did not help them in 2016. “That’s predicated on some false premises that I hope they hold on to.” 

That’s not to say Republicans don’t have problems, he added. If GOP lawmakers don’t manage to follow through on promises of major policy overhauls, it could disillusion their base. 

“Republican primary voters have by no means fallen in love with Democrats,” he said. “But they have venom for the Republicans in the House and Senate at the moment. That doesn’t bode well for turnout.”

Democrats, also, have struggled to keep up with the times.

The average age of House Democrats at the start of the the 115th Congress was 60.1, almost five years older than the House Republican average of 55.5. They also edged out their counterparts in the Senate, where Democrats and independents who caucus with them averaged 61.9 years in age, compared to the Republicans’ 61.8. And the party has taken flack for failing to cultivate young talent. A trio of septuagenarians — Nancy Pelosi, 77, Steny H. Hoyer, 78, and James E. Clyburn, 77 — have dominated House leadership for more than a decade. 

Democrats did themselves no favors with young, liberals voters by putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket last year. She won only 55 percent of the millennial vote, compared to President Barack Obama’s 60 percent in 2012, and she underperformed him in almost every swing state.

Democratic strategist Andrew Baumann said Republicans have far bigger problems with young people than Democrats do. They might win elections by focusing on older, white voters for the next few cycles, he said, but that strategy will soon backfire. 

“They’re going to be in a world of hurt if they have embedded in the minds of these voters what it means to be a Republican, and it’s that,” Baumann said.

Democrats, for their part, have attempted to rectify some of their mistakes by incorporating liberal issues such as raising the minimum wage, first championed by Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, into their new Better Deal platform. Democrats also hope to profit from a backlash against Trump.

“This year, more than before, there may be opportunities to engage millennials who usually haven’t voted,” Baumann said.  “In the past, spending a lot of money to make sure independents break our way might not have been the best strategy. But this year is different.”

Randy Leonard contributed to this report.