Jonathan Rauch senior fellow, Brookings Institution WASHINGTON, DC
ONE GENERATION to rule them all! Baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, have been the most numerous cohort in America for more than five decades. All four presidents since 1993 have been of that generation. But in 2019, their turn at the top will end.
Generations are squishy concepts, but using widely accepted definitions, the Pew Research Centre reckons that 2019 is the year when baby-boomers will be outnumbered. The group displacing them as the largest cohort, the so-called millennials, is very different.
Growing up at the peak of America’s success and influence, and triumphant in their crusades for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, boomers felt entitled to rule. Often confrontational and moralistic, they were inclined to view politics in apocalyptic terms and waged culture wars first against prior generations and then within their own. They attended college more than did any previous cohort, and served in the armed forces less. Rebellious as youths, they turned ultra-protective as parents. They ladled public welfare and pension benefits onto themselves, burdening their children with unsustainable government debts.
Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, grew up on a different planet. Traumatised by 9/11, the financial crisis and shooter drills at school, and observing their country’s relative power in decline, they have been described as pragmatic idealists: hopeful of making the world better, but without the boomers’ messianic streak. They are the first generation to feel fully at home in the digital world, yet also the last to remember doing research projects in physical libraries.
Compared with their parents, they are less attached to political parties, and they are more socially liberal. Interracial marriage, same-sex marriage and legal marijuana give them no pause. And they are more racially diverse: 56% of them are white, according to Pew, as against almost three-quarters of boomers. They are also less religious
Their progressive social views are already forcing change upon corporations and the culture. Millennials expect businesses to be local, green and socially conscientious. They do not necessarily expect to own homes and cars. As they showed to powerful effect in the #MeToo movement, they do not tolerate sexual and workplace practices which their parents took for granted.
And they do not like President Donald Trump: his approval rating is stratified by age, with millennials disapproving of him the most. With their racial diversity and left-leaning views, millennials have the numbers to reset American politics.
But when? Unlike boomers, who stream to the voting booths, millennials stay at home; in presidential elections, only about half have bothered to vote. Though their share of the voting-eligible population will soon surpass baby-boomers’, their clout lags well behind. Boomers may hold the stage long after their act has gone stale.
Jonathan Rauch is author of “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife” (Green Tree, 2018)