Millennials and old people

(Number crunching, Spring 2016)

We don’t often realize that Millennials are the smallest group of 18-30 years old in proportion to the population in American history. As a percentage of the population, there are about one-third to one-half less Millennials today than there were Baby Boomers when Baby Boomers were 18-30 years old (mostly in the 1970’s and ’80’s). Millennial numbers are offset further by the fact that people are living a decade longer than they did a generation ago. Basically there are a lot more old people alive–most of them Boomers–and a lot less young people replacing them. And the proportion of white Millennials is much lower than it was in the Boomer era, with both white and especially black birth numbers way down in between 1986-1998 (the black decline due in large part due to mass incarceration of males, but that’s another essay…). This takes on particular significance when you figure in the fact that Hispanic Millennials, who are expanding dramatically as a proportion of the total 18-30 population, vote considerably less than white Millennials (a third to a half less). This has major repercussions, because all the great progressive political movements in US history have been driven by a large youth voting population, yet that youth population now is the smallest it has ever been as a proportion of the voting population.

There had been an enormous under thirty population in the 1930’s–perhaps because of the decline in child mortality since the 19th century–and when those kids grew up there they created another under thirty population bubble that came of voting age in the late 1960’s through into the ’70’s. That bubble got a late start because the birth rate plummeted in the depths of the Depression and then recovered only slowly, only to plummet again when all the young men were mobilized for WW2. It was ironically those children, the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 (peaking in 1957) who created the current drop in the birth rate by creating so few kids themselves. Our parents gave us our political dominance by having so many of us, and then we have maintained that dominance well into our dotage by not having enough kids. 

As a result Millennial influence on the electorate already is watered down considerably compared to that of Baby Boomers. However, Boomers when they were 18-30 voted more conservatively than Millennials (Nixon and Reagan both won the 18-21 vote, in fact), so that more of the under 30 vote will vote left now than in, say, 1968, 1972 or 1980. Millennials are not splitting their votes anywhere near as much as Boomers did. But will they vote enough to offset the numbers of those thirty and up? So far, not so. They would have to have an 80% turnout to revolutionize the country. They are showing up about half that much. Not even Bernie Sanders can get them out in huge numbers. Kids under thirty just don’t vote much. Never have. 

What 18-30 year old voter strength there is will continue to decline as the drop in the birth rate decline shows no sign of reversing. The trend will probably be exacerbated in a generation as immigration from Latin America continues its steady decline (which I’m sure is also due in large part to lower birth rates throughout nearly all Latin America except in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). First generation immigrant residents here (that is, the children of immigrants born here; my father was first generation) typically have smaller families than their immigrant parents. Second generation families (my mother was second generation) are smaller still. Without an explosion in immigration into the United States like that in the 1980’s the U.S. population will begin heading toward zero population growth. (Japan has already been at negative population growth, Germany getting there.) That means more older people than younger people.

At some point in the not so distant future, grumpy middle aged Millennials will outnumber post-Millennials, and yet another generation will be outvoted by their parents and grandparents. But it will be their turn soon enough, because unless people decide to start having four and five kids again, this cycle of outvoted 18-30 years olds is locked in. This declining birth rate over generations has been the trend throughout the rest of the western world incidentally (indeed, birth rates are dropping through out most of the world outside of Africa and a few scattered Asia states such as the Philippines, also an exporter of its own people like Latin America once was). The US has been the exception to the birth rate decline only because we have so many immigrants (far more than any other western country). The notion that the youth will revolutionize the US political system by voting as a bloc–Bernie Sanders’ plan–will fade as there will be so many more older people voting than younger people. Elections will be decided by the elderly (with a voting rate of well over 70%) and the middle aged (with a voting rate of 50-60%, increasing with age). If Millennials (who vote at 30-40%) are able to change the balance this year and turn the country left, it will probably be the last time it ever happens. From now on elections will turn on those middle aged and elderly voters, and soon the over 60’s voters will decide elections until most of the Boomers, at long last, have gone on to that Woodstock in the Sky.

It’s important to remember that while there are more 18-30 year olds today in sheer numbers than there were 18-30 year old baby boomers, that the population of Millennials today is less in proportion to the voting population. It’s true that the nation’s population has grown considerably since, say, 1968. Nearly doubled. (And grown nearly three times since Baby Boomers began being made in the 1940’s.) But the birth rate has plunged since the days that Baby Boomers were born and as a result the population today has aged dramatically. Lowering the voting age to 18 was offset long ago by the increased lifespan, health and extended political involvement of the over sixties population. It is immigrants alone–the vast majority of them Latin American and Asian–who have kept the US from approaching zero population growth. Indeed it is due to immigrants that we have the highest birth rate of any industrialized country. But immigrants simply do not vote in the same numbers as non-immigrants, and even their children vote less than non-immigrant children. Those children once they are 18-30 cannot make up for the declining birth rate of the rest of the population 18-30. It takes two or three generations for that voting rate imbalance to work itself out.

But as immigration from Latin America tapers off as it has been doing steadily since the 1980’s, those immigrants’ children (first generation Americans, in the jargon) will eventually have a birth rate will of 2-3 children per mother, which will not offset the increased lifespans of Americans. Boomers can expect to live into their eighties. That enormous age bubble will offset the Millennials’ youthful political exuberance completely. It’s the Leisureworldization of America. By the time that Boomers have finally died off in enough numbers, Millennials will be in their forties, voting now in greater number as middle aged people do, but also turning away from the Left and turning towards the center in large numbers, as middle aged also people do. In the meantime we Baby Boomers maintain such a stranglehold on American culture that when our rock stars die Millennials mourn, something we never did for our parents’ big band heroes and crooners. We laughed.

This year Millennials backed their candidate for the Democratic nomination by up to 85%, yet they were still unable to beat the over forty voters. And those were just Democrats. Add Republicans into the mix and Millennial voting strength is diluted even more. While a strong Millennial turn out can provide a winning margin, there simply are not enough 18-30 year olds to control the issues. Most of Bernie Sanders’ issues have disappeared as Hillary and Trump battle for the middle ground where Boomers are vacillating. Had the young Boomers voted in a bloc like Millennials do now, they could have had some powerful influence. But Boomers didn’t. We split our vote, a few more of us voting Democrat than Republican. In large parts of the country Baby Boomers were the soldiers of the Reagan Revolution. You don’t see that with Millennials. They are far more to the left as a bloc than we were. But there are not enough of them. Nor will there ever will be. The baby boom is a long lived demographic bubble that in sheer numbers keeps Millennials from initiating the changes they so passionately desire. By the time we boomers die off most Millennials will have lost the fire and sunk into their comfy chairs. Some will even become ardent conservatives. Will they go as far to the right as so many Baby Boomers did? Unlikely, you don’t veer that far from your young roots and a lot more Millennials are off on the Left now than there ever were Boomers on the left. But most voters do change with age, even middle age, they get less fired up, less fond of rallies, more fond of moderation and cautiously incremental approaches. Mature they call it. Under thirty voters call it other things. Yet the same transformation will happen to Millennials in a decade or so. Perhaps then the generation following the Millennials, whatever we will call them, will pick up the banner. Though there is nothing saying they will be as far to the left as their Millennial parents. Kids, you know.

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