June 29, 2009|
Guest post by Alan Haburchak
It seems like there is a certain generally accepted truth about age and ideology in America: Young people are liberal and vote Democratic while the older generation tends to trend more conservative. There's even that old chestnut usually attributed to Winston Churchill: "If you're young and not a liberal you have no heart, if you're old and not a conservative, you have no brain."
That seems like it would make sense, and is certainly backed up by exit polling in the 2008 presidential race where two-thirds of 18-29 year olds voted for Barack Obama. But in a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum today, Simon Rosenberg and Morley Winograd of the New Democrat Network, presented research that showed political leanings are intensely generational. The Millenial Generation (the kids today, born after 1980 with their Facebook and their Twitter) identify as "liberal" almost two to one. No surprise there.
But, the same survey given to Generation X (those born between 1960 and 1980) when they were the age Millenials are now shows over 60% identifying as conservative, and the Boomer generation (born between 1943 and 1960) split almost down the middle. Young people have not always been so overtly liberal minded as they are now, according to Rosenburg and Winograd.
For Rosenberg and Winograd, the reason for this lies in a theory put forth in a 1991 book called Generations. According to the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, the twentieth century, and actually the last 400 years of human history can be divided into twenty-year four-generation cycles, with each successive generation conforming to a specific type. Todays Millenials are the current cycle's "civic" generation, they're optimisitic and believe in community action and volunteering (the hallmarks of the Obama presidency). The Gen Xers on the other hand come from the "reactive" generation, characterized by self-reliance and entrepreneurship (the political hero of this group: Reagan).
The relevance of all this theorizing, according to Rosenberg and Winograd, is in how it has and will continue to shape the political landscape of the United States. Given how liberal the Millenials are, and the fact that there are more of them than any generation since the Boomers, they will probably dominate at least the next two electoral cycles, if not even farther into the future. This means that if Rosenberg and Winograd are right, the Dems can plan on another big win in 2012 and probably in 2016 as well.
That begs the question, what comes next in the generational cycle? According to the theory, the next generation is going to fall into the "adaptive" category, which means they might be a lot like John McCain's "silent generation," meaning a lot of them will have deeply-held conservative beliefs and will probably wonder how their parents can be so liberal and open-minded. Plus, they'll want to know why the old folks won't shut up about this Face-Twitter thing they used when they were kids.