After the 2016 presidential election, many people found solace in a series of maps that divided the electorate by generations. The map of Millennial voters in 2016 looked like this:
CNN reported that Hillary Clinton took 54% of Millennial voters and that 37% of Millennials voted for Donald Trump. In 2008, Barack Obama won 66% of the Millennial vote and in 2012, Barack Obama won 60% of the Millennial vote.
It is true, as the data shows, that young adult voters (a.k.a. Millennials) tend to be more liberal than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts. But you’ll notice that Millennials were less liberal in 2016 than they were in 2012, and even less so than in 2008.
What’s going on here? Are Millennials shedding their liberal values? Have Millennials given up on hope of positive change after eight years of Obama-filled with gridlock and some serious liberal letdowns (see number of deportations, increased drone strikes, continued wars in the Middle East, etc.)?
This data trend flies in the face of much of the generational information we read, purporting that each generation has a unique set of values, motivators and understanding of what work-life balance means, and that hat they are shaped by the historical context they grew up in and carry those values and ideals throughout their lives.
So, is it true that our future is blue because of the overwhelming amount of Millennials in the US? No. What I see in the data highlights something else - not a confirmation of the liberal values of our future, but a universal truth about age that Winston Churchill so profoundly addressed:
“If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no head.”
Churchill spoke of a universal truth about age, not generations. The youth of any generation tend to be more liberal and as they age, they become more conservative. Why is this?
Young adults have a specific set of issues that concern them. They are searching for and entering their careers, looking for ways to pay off their student debt and are exploring and understanding who they are in this world. They access social services and support (e.g. birth control, FAFSA, WIC, ACA). These young adults, whether they are young adults in 1950, 1980 or 2010, are finding their paths and want as many options and supports as possible, so a more liberal agenda suits their needs.
As they age and move from young adults to adults; perhaps marrying, buying a house and having children. Their concerns become less about finding themselves and more about creating stability for their families. The tax rate, public safety and the social services they rely upon become far more important to them. Fewer taxes always sound like a good idea when you are trying to pay the mortgage, save for your kid’s education, put healthy food on the table and take a family vacation. So, it’s not surprising that these adults shift to a more conservative perspective.
As adults become elders, their earning years are ending and they are living on fixed incomes. Hopefully, the house is finally paid off, their health care is taken care of by the government, and the social services they may have relied upon, are no longer needed. Meanwhile, costs are rising and the world looks a lot different than it did when they were young adults. Change is occurring quicker than ever before in their lives and there is a real fear - of being able to take care of themselves in an increasingly foreign and expensive world. Self-preservation is an immediate need, so the thought of supporting others via taxes and support services for things they do not need (e.g. public education, Planned Parenthood) is a lower priority. And thus, they continue their movement toward a more conservative perspective.
This is the arch of a life - we start out idealistic and through years of experiences, increasing responsibilities and contracting resources, we become less liberal; shifting from green to blue, or blue to purple, or purple to red, or red to neo/alt-Red.
The left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican nomenclature no longer accurately describes the spectrum of beliefs that our incredibly beautiful and diverse nation espoused and practices. So while I will avoid predicting what our future holds, I can say with certitude that the map of Millennials, the dominant demographic force in our work and cultural lives, creating a blue (liberal/democratic) America is likely to fade. These maps and polls we digest are snapshots, a single moment in time. They are outdated the moment they are published. Nor do they represent a stagnant set of beliefs or values bestowed upon a specific generation-- they display a general sentiment at a single moment in time. In other words, don’t think Millennials are going to elect decades of liberal presidents as they dominate the electorate. The pendulum continues to swing with its predictable rhythm.
As I have said before, generational thinking is flawed, and continuing to think along the lines of generations leads us to false conclusions time and time again. No generation is going to “save” us or “doom” us. No generation is going to put us on “the right” path, or solve our many crises.
We are a nation of individuals with a myriad of differences - socio-economic levels, education levels, countries of origin, family dynamics, religious traditions and cultures. These differences are far stronger predictors of values and political affiliations than anything else. To highlight this, here is a map from the 2016 election that shows how Evangelical White voters voted:
Our cultural and class differences, if explored and embraced, are our greatest source of strength. So however you identify, whatever you might believe, however active you might be in your community, whatever hue your state is, it is your responsibility to continue to speak your truth respectfully and challenge yourself and your assumptions. We can all take an active role in making tomorrow brighter (green, blue or red) than yesterday.