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With all the attention on the Presidential race of 2008, there is one key issue that has been largely neglected – the issue of generational change. Certainly, Barack Obama has an appeal to younger people who turn out in record numbers and often confound pollsters. How do they do that? The simple answer is that they can. Consider voter turnout in 2004 from this source at the Census Bureau, on page 4:


We can make this a lot simpler if we use the standard definitions of “Generations”. These are the Traditionals, born before 1946, Baby Boomers, born 1946 – 1964, Gen-Xers, born from 1965 – 1979, and Millenials, born from 1980 – 1999. These are useful definitions because each break corresponds to a change in the births recorded year by year:


What is important isn’t just the vital statistics, but the fact that each generation grew up in a different world than the others. Consider, for example, that between Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed and protests over Vietnam were just beginning.

I was born in 1965, and my class in the Dade County (Florida) Public Schools was the first to be integrated under court supervision stemming from the case Gibson vs. Dade County School Board in 1970. The institutions that defined our world were noticeably different from those the Baby Boomers grew up with from the start, and the change only accelerated. By the time we entered the workforce in the 1980s the steady lifetime job at a big corporation was history. Gen-Xers can be considered as a block to the extent that we shared an experience that was distinct to the times when our young minds were shaped.

Breaking it down this way, voters in 2004 had this generational profile:

2004 General Election
% Citizens % Vote % Turnout
Millenials 13% 9% 42%
Gen-Xers 28% 24% 50%
Baby Boomers 44% 49% 64%
Traditionals 15% 18% 69%

Overall, turnout was 58% of all citizens and a strong function of age. Millenials and Gen-Xers tend to not turnout as well as their elders for a number of reasons, and 2004 was no exception. Together, they made up 33% of all voters the last time we elected a President.

We can consider them together because they have a similar outlook in at least one key area related to this election: Management styles. Their experience in post-corporate America has been one of collaborative, networked jobs where teams assemble almost spontaneously to do a task. Theirs is not a particularly loyal world nor a particularly institutional, but it is fun. As Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman say in “When Generations Collide”, “Xers and Millenials � seem much more predisposed to include some fun as part of the mix. Their vision of the remaking the American workplace has been where the constant pressure of competition is downplayed and fun is part of the collaboration.”

The candidates left standing so far represent three of these four generations. John McCain, born in 1936, is a Traditionalist and institutionally top down in his approach to management. Hillary Clinton, born in 1948, emphasizes leadership skills and thus shows how the typical Baby Boomer approach isn’t a lot different. Barack Obama, while technically a Baby Boomer through birth in 1961, has developed a collaborative networked style for his campaign and a tendency to cut across institutional divides; he’s a Gen-Xer at heart. And the people that grew up with that style, the Gen-Xers and Millenials combined, love it.

The election in 2008 will have more about 16 million more Millenials voting, since everyone born in 1987-1990 will come of age. If we neglect the effects of naturalized citizens, about 6% of all voters we can predict what the populations by generation will be in this election under three scenarios – no net change in voting patterns, and varying levels of excitement:

2008 General Election
No Change Scenario 1 Scenario 2
Millenials 14% 17% 19%
Gen-Xers 23% 23% 26%
Baby Boomers 47% 46% 41%
Traditionals 15% 15% 13%

Without any change in turnout by generation, we can expect that Gen-Xers plus Millenials (or everyone born after 1965) will comprise 37% of the voting population. Scenario 1 assumes that the Millenials get excited enough about their candidate to vote with the same turnout as Gen-Xers, or 50%, which is enough to increase the younger candidate’s share to 40% of all voters. Scenario 2 is based on the possibility that both Millenials and Gen-Xers are excited enough to turnout at the rate of Baby Boomers, or 64%; in this case, the Gen-Xers plus Millenials make up a whopping 45% of all voters.

So far, in the Democratic Party, issues have not arisen that distinguish the candidates all that harshly. What has shown up is something mistakenly labeled a “cult of personality” around Barack Obama that pollsters and pundits alike miss easily. It is no such thing. This is a generational change that is much quieter than the one experienced in 1968 but is no less significant. This could be the last election in which people who remember the 1960s comprise a majority of all voters, and even that may be by a narrow margin.

More significantly, this generational change is likely to produce a major change in how voters perceive the role of elected officials and the office of President itself. That is the key issue in this election – not who should be President so much as what a President actually is. That’s something missed by older generations, who rarely think about such things. But it’s on the mind of a near majority of all voters this year. We forget that at our own peril.

8 thoughts on “Generations

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