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America’s Coming-of-Age: The Power and Politics of the Post-Millennial Generation

As 2020 approaches, demographers studying the  US electorate have identified a significant development since 2016: the coming of age of the “Post-Millennial” generation. Often referred to as “Generation Z,”  this group is comprised of young adults and children born after 1996. They are unlikely to remember the attacks of 9/11, entered the workforce after the 2008 Financial Crisis, and have a fundamentally different relationship with technology than previous generations. Indeed, post-Millennials face a fundamentally different politico-economic environment than their parents, or even their grandparents. While Baby Boomers were born in the wake of a catastrophic World War and members of Generation X grew up in fear of a nuclear holocaust, post-Millennials are emerging in a newly globalized world facing catastrophic threats of climate change. These “digital natives” are mostly under voting age, representing a mere 4% of the electorate in 2016, but this is rapidly changing By 2020, Gen Z will represent one in ten of eligible voters, and, along with the Millennials, their share of the US electorate will only grow in coming years until they eventually surpass every previous generation in voting power.

Despite the political influence that comes with Gen Z’s numbers, some experts have dismissed the bloc’s importance, citing historically low turnout rates among young voters. In fact, Americans aged 18-29 have produced the lowest turnout rate of any age group since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking voter-age data in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Gen Z could defy this trend and transform a latent voting bloc into a powerful one.

The post-millennial generation is already historic in a few ways, a fact experts bring up when justifying predictions of unusually high turnout rates. Gen Z is the most populous, racially diverse, and well-educated generation in US history: around half are people of color, high school dropout rates have plummeted, and nearly 60 percent of current 18-20 year-olds are pursuing college. These auspicious demographics suggest that young adults are more likely to turn out to vote, elect diverse representatives, and make informed voting decisions.

Changes in technology, particularly in social media, also complicate long-held wisdom about voter turnout. Mathematical models could not have predicted the potential impact of Taylor Swift’s Instagram, for instance. But her post in October urging fans to vote resulted in the biggest surge in new registrations in Vote.Org’s history. And roughly 418,000 young people registered to vote through Snapchat this fall. Intuitively, a generation growing up with breaking news notifications, Trump’s stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, and the online #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements is more politically engaged. Indeed, underage members of Gen Z, most notably the Parkland survivors, have already relied on social media to organize, attract attention to their political issue, and communicate their message. Most consider the spike in turnout rates for those aged 18-29 in the 2018 midterms a Trump-induced anomaly, but Gen Z seems to be taking their civic duties more seriously than predecessors, and this spike could be the beginning of a trend.

Ideologically, the largest generation will undoubtedly shape US politics and redefine party lines, most likely bringing a liberal conclusion to today’s polarization but potentially just intensifying the incompatibility between parties. Pew Research Center’s first in-depth study of post-Millennials suggests they generally align with the Millennials on social issues, but swing further left on economic issues. Their distinct economic philosophies could stem from Gen Z’s lack of experience in the workforce but more likely reflects the differing contexts in which they came of age. For the older members of Gen Z, the 2008 Financial Crisis was a defining moment of their formative years, and those who saw their families struggle to make ends meet or became cognizant of US wealth inequality may have become disillusioned with the free market from a young age and turned to socialism as an alternative market theory. On most social topics–and in particular, regarding racial diversity, female political participation, and same-sex marriage–Millenial and Gen Z beliefs align. Together, they will form 37 percent of the 2020 potential electorate, representing a constituency that neither party can ignore.

Generation Z will overwhelmingly vote Democratic and are one of the primary forces in the Left’s recent shift to a more progressive, populist economic message. A recent poll showed that the word “socialism” elicited a positive reaction in 61 percent of Generation Z, representing  a dramatic departure from the rest of the country, since nationwide studies indicate that fewer than 40 percent of Americans react positively to socialism. And although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ surprise win in the primaries shocked the Democratic establishment only a few months ago, 2020 Democratic candidates now seem to be leaning into the policy platform of young socialists to capitalize on demographic changes in their bases. Every mainstream Democrat running in 2020, including Senators Booker, Warren, Gillibrand, Harris, and Klobuchar, has already pledged not to accept donations from corporate PACs. This is a new phenomenon: Hillary Clinton’s campaign openly accepted corporate money which the campaign saw as a necessary means to the White House. Furthermore, these candidates have all expressed support for costly government initiatives that resonate with young people, including universal health care, lowering college tuition, and fighting climate change. Democratic senators with presidential aspirations have cosponsored progressive bills like Medicare for All, Debt-Free College, the Assault Weapons Ban, and the Green New Deal in an effort to gain support from young people. Clearly, Gen Zers and Millennials offer Democratic candidates a favorable path to the White House in 2020.

Just as the youngest Democrats fall further left than older generations, the minority of Gen Zers who identify as Republicans clash ideologically with every other generation of Republicans –– a great challenge for the GOP as it seeks to recuperate from the controversial Trump presidency. Throughout United States history, Republicans have rallied around their belief in small government, but more than half of Gen Z Republicans envisage a greater role for the government in solving social issues. On issues like race and climate change that are igniting today’s political discourse, there are also striking generational differences. The youngest Republicans are much more likely to accept empirical evidence of anthropogenic climate change and racial inequity. As one young Republican expressed to the New York Times, young Republicans are more progressive than ever, in a time when the party is moving much further to the right. In fact, while the most recent poll from Gallup has Trump’s approval rating at nearly 90 percent among Republicans, it falls to only 59 percent for Gen Z in the GOP. These numbers among young Republicans are remarkably low, but a primary opponent for President Trump appears unlikely, as does a significant change in Trump’s messaging in 2020. For a party that already struggles to attract young voters, the disagreements between the youngest members of the GOP and the party’s orthodoxy are troubling. If young Republicans continue to hold strong views on race, climate change, and the size of the government, the GOP may have to change its strategies and adopt a more liberal platform to gain the votes of the largest generation.

The general consensus among young people from both parties on social issues suggests current political stalemates on social issues including immigration and gun control will be resolved in coming years. But the Democrats’ substantial shift leftward on economic issues will likely result in continued incompatibility with a GOP that shows few signs of evolving on fiscal matters such as taxes and the national debt. Young Republicans may support a big government in theory, but, unlike many of their generational peers, they are far from endorsing socialism. Initiatives such as free or inexpensive college and climate change policy will force them to choose between their loyalty to the GOP’s fiscal platform and commitment to addressing their generation’s unique challenges. Their response will determine whether the next stage of American politics retains the polarization and stagnation of today.

Photo: “Children at a March