New Generation, New Politics: As Generation Y Steps into the Polling Booths, How Will Political Life Change?

Article excerpt

A new generation is coming of age in America and politicians ignore it at their peril. Generation Y, as it's been called, is expected to be as large as the Baby Boom Generation, and when the full group is of voting age, it could have as much political significance. It is a generation that has thus far shown itself to be disdainful of politics, cynical about political parties and more likely than any other age group to support third-party candidates. At the same time, these young people are engaged in the life of the community and expect to improve it. To write them off politically is to risk someone else mobilizing a sleeping giant.

But reaching Generation Y voters will take some doing. They have little interest in retirement security or reforming Medicare, the dominant political issues of the last few election cycles. They are a racially diverse and, in many ways, a politically progressive group; as a result, more of them call themselves Democrats than do their predecessors in Generation X and even the Baby Boom Generation. But their political world-view contains a complicated mix of liberal and conservative perspectives. Either Democrats or Republicans could plausibly win broad favor with this generation, but only if they can find the right message and deliver it with authenticity in a medium that young people are tuned to.

Political professionals usually dismiss Generation Y because it votes at a much lower rate than older Americans. Yet even at this depressed rate, voters under 25 years old will constitute between 7 percent and 8 percent of the electorate in 2004. They will rival in size other coveted swing groups such as "soccer moms" and "office-park dads." More important, they are the future electorate.

THE LONG GOODBYE

The young voters of Generation Y in many ways represent the culmination of years of disaffection with politics and traditional political institutions. Their grandparents or great-grandparents are the Silent generation, the electorate's strongest partisans whose enduring ties to the Democratic Party were forged during the Franklin D. Roosevelt years and the formation of the modern welfare state. These seniors grew up at the height of civic engagement and collective community in America, buying war bonds, saving rubber bands, the oldest of them serving overseas. And as study after study has demonstrated, they continue to participate in politics at much higher rates than their progeny. (Because generations are rough categories, defined with different cutoff dates by different researchers--and because voting and polling results are often reported not by generation at all but by other age groupings--the data are not tidy. Nonetheless the overall picture is unmistakable.)

Partisan allegiance weakened among the next generation, the baby boomers, as young people challenged traditional institutions and social mores during the civil-rights, anti-war and women's movements. Participation in electoral politics remained relatively high in 1972, when 50 percent of baby boomers--those under 25 years of age--voted in the presidential election. But the subsequent fallout from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal marked them with a growing distrust of government and political leadership.

The children of the baby boomers, Generation X, were thus born into a world of increasing cynicism about government, and they grew up during the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior administrations, when government was under systematic assault and social ills were blamed on a failed welfare state. Their depressed outlook was further fueled by a multitude of griefs--from rising divorce rates to the economic recession to the crack epidemic to the AIDS explosion--that made the world a dangerous place. In 1984 and 1988, as Generation X came of voting age, only 40.8 percent and 36.2 percent of people under 25 voted in those respective presidential elections. And this generation remains the most disaffected--and conservative--in the electorate. …