The 2020 Elections and the  Coming of the Post Baby Boomer Era of American Politics

The 2020 elections are significant for many reasons.  But perhaps most importantly this could be the last hurrah for the Silent Generation, those born between 1924 and 1944, and it is also the beginning of the end of the Baby Boomer era of politics.  What the passing of these two generations may mean for American politics is potentially dramatic, especially as it bodes in the next decade a possible dramatic shift to the left in America.

Political scientists commonly analyze variables such as race, class, and gender in terms of their impact on voting behavior and political attitudes. But they generally pay less attention to the concept of generations.  But sociologists and some political scientists believe generations  have a major impact in terms of how we can explain political change.

Karl Mannheim’s in his 1927 “The Sociological Problem of Generations,” was one of the first scholars to recognize the importance of generational change.  Here he noted that over time there was a constant introduction of new people introduction of new members to society by birth as well as the exiting by death.  Temporarily many people are linked together in time by being born approximately at the same time and often during late adolescence or early adulthood they collectively and uniquely experience some events that are formative.  These formative events are often major catastrophes such as wars or economic booms or crashes  and they impress upon generation a world view that experiences their political outlook for the rest of their lives.  For Baby Boomers, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, break up of the Beatles in 1970, and many of the events of the 1960s are all helped define the world view of that generation.

The concept of generational change suggests that as a new generation of individuals born around the same time mature they experience unique events and develop a consciousness that is their own, different from the generation that preceded or comes after them.  The circumstances of a generation’s birth, including its upbringing and education, world events, the economy, its own demographics, and its contrast to other generations all contribute to a generational  consciousness and therefore its politics.   A generation first acquires its views in adolescence or early adulthood but then it takes until they are in their late 30s or 40s before they are in political positions of power to affect a change.

Two generations dominate American politics n ow–the Silents and the Baby Boomers.  The Silents at their maximum were nearly 55 million, today they are barely half that.  They were more than 90% white and Christian.  Today they are the core of the Republican party along with other white working class.  The Silents are conservative, anti-immigrant, isolationist, anti-tax, anti-abortion and GLBT rights.   They are close to exiting the American political scene.

The Baby Boomers were born 1946 to 1960, although some push them from1942 to 1964.  They were nearly 79 million at their peak, but are now starting to die off and that will accelerate over the next decade.  They are almost as white and Christian as the Silents, and despite all the talk about Boomers being so progressive, many of them are conservative or centrist.  They are the core of the Democratic party still, along with a relatively small generation of Gn Xers born between 1961 and 1981 who were barely 60 million.

A simple story would say that American politics is the clash of Republican Silents versus  Democratic Boomers.  But it is more complex.  As both of these generations die off they will be replaced by Millennials born between 1982 and 1995 who are 77 million, and Gen Zs  born between 1996 and 2013, with 91 million.  These two generations are demographically so different from the Silents and Boomers, with former being the largest percentage ever non-white, immigrant, non-Christian, and secular.

Millennials and Gen Z experienced a world far different from Silents and Boomers. For the latter, capitalism appeared to work and provided them with jobs, homes, affordable college, and a pension.  For the former, they saw their parents or they lose home in the crash of 2008.  They are experiencing a world of rising inequality, sky rocketing college education, and stagnant wages.  Capitalism has failed them, and that is why candidates like Bernie Sanders who talk of socialism are attractive.   Boomers and Silents, growing up during the Cold War when socialism and communism were bad words, simply fail to appreciate the changed world of the generations coming after them.

There is a ticking biological-political clock in America.  Already the Millennials are a larger voting bloc than either the Silents or Boomers.  Over the next decade as the  more racially diverse and secular Millennial and Gen Z generations replace the Silents and Boomers, both the Republican  and Democratic parties face existential crises to recruit new members, and American politics portends a significant shift on a variety of social and economic issues.  The question for now is how noisy and quickly Silents and Boomers will go and when will the impact of the new generations be felt.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.