Aspiring presidential candidates are picking their sides in the great boomer-versus-millennial war. “The Boomer generation needed just 306 hours of minimum wage work to pay for four years of public college,” Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted in April, compared to almost 4,500 hours for millennials. “The economy today is rigged against working people and young people.”
Sanders is beloved by young progressives, but early polls show the leader of the Democratic pack, by a large margin, is Joe Biden — a friend and ally of Hillary Clinton, who dominated the boomer vote in the 2016 primary. Biden laid his generational cards on the table in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year, saying that “the younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no. I have no empathy for it. Give me a break. Because here's the deal, guys — we decided we were gonna change the world. And we did."
The two politicians, each in their mid-seventies, have embraced different generational bases: It’s clear in the quote above who the “we” is that Biden aligns with, and just as clear from where Bernie Sanders draws his most passionate supporters. As these two candidates stay far ahead of the Democratic pack, the primary will continue to double as a kind of proxy war in a larger generational battle.
These kind of battles have their issues. Assigning people a generational identity based on an arbitrary birth year cutoff is silly and might even be harmful; using labels to refer to distrusted out-groups — and treating individuals primarily as representatives of their groups — is a recipe for conflict and discrimination.
But the appetite for this kind of discourse reflects the unavoidable reality of a growing generational divide — one that is already central to US politics, and will grow even more so for the foreseeable future. Young people imagining a fundamental overhaul of America will first need to come to terms with the political power that boomer Democrats will retain for at least the next decade — and probably longer.
Boomers have dominated national politics for a long time. Aside from Barack Obama, the Democratic candidates for president from 1992 onward have been born in a hilariously narrow range of years: Bill Clinton (1946), Al Gore (1948), John Kerry (1943), Hillary Clinton (1947).
The Republican side of the aisle is little different: Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were all born in either 1946 or 1947. Unlike Obama, their outliers have been even older: John McCain, born in 1936, and Bob Dole, born in 1923. The 2020 election will be another boomer-versus-boomer affair if either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders ends up facing Donald Trump.
This can be explained in fairly straightforward terms: In a US-style democracy, the number of people in a group is a big part of its electoral power, but only if they actually turn out to vote. There are a roughly equal number of millennials and boomers, but turnout is much higher among older people. Despite a highly touted uptick among millennials in 2018, the absolute turnout gap barely changed.
As boomers continue to age, their share of voters who actually show up may become even more skewed. According to some projections, an astonishing one-third of votes cast in the off-cycle 2030 election will come from people over 65. These basic facts make generational conflict within the Democratic Party inevitable.
A broader cultural conflict has already primed us for this: “boomer” has become an insult among millennials, and vice versa. Journalistic accounts of millennials "killing" old-school industries have been ubiquitous for years, confirming notions of societal decline among older people for whom, say, stoves and American cheese still have value. Talk of young people as being unusually entitled, soft, or decadent is as old as time, but has been given a contemporary spin in the culture wars.
Young people have a narrative of their own: Boomers are technologically illiterate, the beneficiaries of an unusually prosperous era they lucked their way into. From their comfortable homes, bought for a fraction of today’s prices, they’re happy making cuts to the things that made them rich and secure — things like immigration or social safety nets. Worst of all, they lived through a period of vast environmental destruction, and see no urgent need to reverse course.
We’re still learning how this conflict will play out in Democratic politics, but the identity-versus-class debate that defined the 2016 Democratic primary battle between Clinton and Sanders helps us understand just how stark the divide is. Millennials are to the left of boomers on both dimensions.
That’s because ethnoracial identity is far from evenly distributed by age. Boomers and millennials each comprise about 23% of the US population, but only 17% of ethnoracial minorities are boomers, compared to 27% who are millennials. The gap is largest among people who identify as Hispanic or multiracial.
Hillary Clinton’s success among black voters in the 2016 primary is one of the strongest examples of how generational identity can overcome other political splits. She won an estimated 76% of the black vote, even as Sanders won the majority of votes among black voters under 30. Among black voters aged 60 and older, Clinton’s vote share rose to 89%.
The “class” dimension comes with the same generational splits. Older people have always tended to be better off than younger people for the simple reason that they have had more time to acquire skills or advance up the career ladder. But the boomer/millennial wealth gap is especially acute. The former generation came of age during a time of sustained and broad-based economic growth; people were overwhelmingly likely to become richer than their parents. In contrast, millennials came of age either just before or in the wake of the Great Recession, and a much greater number never began this process of upward mobility.
Then there’s the explosion of student loan debt, which barely existed before about 2000. Total student debt rose from $200 billion in 2003 to $1.4 trillion in 2018. It’s an economic burden borne almost exclusively by people who went to college in the past 15 years.
This means student loan forgiveness and college cost reduction are big issues for millennials, and mostly unpopular among boomers.
Another divide concerns climate change and responses like the Green New Deal. Millennials — and particularly the youngest adults — see the wealth accumulated by previous generations as the spoils of environmental degradation. A Pew poll showed 65% of millennials believe there is solid evidence for human-caused climate change, compared to 47% of boomers. And millennials are far more supportive of the Green New Deal.
The logic behind this discrepancy is cynical but unavoidable: Climate change will cause more harm in the lives of the young than the old. Discussion of this point ranges from scholarly, in the context of “climate debt,” to pragmatic: “Young people, unlike older generations, must contemplate living through the worst effects of climate change a few decades down the line,” the Nation reported.
That’s putting it nicely. If you want a more antagonistic version, there’s plenty of them out there. “There’s a huge disparity in the terms of this debate,” wrote one contributor at the Outline on the politics of climate change. “The kids want to win it. boomers just want to die before we get to the closing arguments.”
Hillary Clinton was born in 1947. This year was misstated in an earlier version of this post.
Kevin Munger is an assistant professor of political science and social data analytics at Penn State University.