Not a week goes by without my Generation Z students asking, ‘Does America have an age problem?’
It does, but the rationale may surprise. The nation’s age problem is not with older, Boomer politicians dominating the news. Rather, our age problem is the political inaction of younger generations, which marginalizes their notably divergent interests and views.
If Trump is re-elected in 2020, he will be 75 years old: older than Ronald Reagan at the start of his second term, and older than many of my students’ grandparents. Even more alarming to some of my students is that Bernie Sanders will be 79 in 2020, and Joe Biden 78.
There are some younger Democratic candidates in the 20-plus pool running for the White House. Beto O’Rourke, for instance, is 46, and Pete Buttigieg is 37. But my students are worried because the front-runners are all considerably older. The ‘age-enhanced’ frontrunners should prompt discussions about their fitness for the role and their mental acuity, as well as general questions about why the nation is focused on older candidates and not nearly as excited about younger generations of politicians.
Young voters believe that they are politically engaged via social media, and therefore exerting influence. But the reality is that the Baby Boomers are still in political control, because traditional forms of participation and engagement still matter.
The Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, has dominated the political scene for decades. The current president and his and previous three predecessors are Boomers, and so, on current form, is the next president. While the press talks about the influence of social media on younger generations, the fact remains that younger generations are significantly less engaged with politics than Boomers, and less influential and effective.
Data from the new AEI survey on community and society vividly shows this demographic divergence. When the survey asks Americans whether they believe they can influence politics, the results are mixed. Forty-eight percent believe that ‘Ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington if they are willing to make the effort’. Fifty-two percent believe that ‘There’s not much ordinary citizens can do to influence the government in Washington.’
Look at the age cohorts, however, and we see significant differences. Fifty-five percent of early Boomers believe that they can influence Washington. Only 41 percent of Generation Z — those born between the mid-Nineties and the early 2000s — believe they can be agents of social change.
Generational differences recur in other measures of engagement. Ninety-three percent of early Boomers claim to regularly vote in national elections. That figure steadily declines with youth, so that only 55 percent of late Millennials — those in their late twenties — claim to regularly vote.
Trends of political discussion follow this generational decline. Seventy percent of early Boomers report talking about politics and current affairs a few times a month or more. Only 54 percent of late Millennials and members of Generation Z talk about politics with similar regularity.
As for social media, roughly a third of younger Millennials and Generation Z Americans report that they have publicly expressed support for a political campaign or cause online, compared to only 25 percent of early and late Boomers. However, these social media numbers are low, and the voting numbers should give younger Americans pause.
Moreover, older generations are also more committed to the older forms of political engagement that keep the wheels of the political machine turning. For instance, while it often appears that students are regularly demonstrating, the data shows that 30 percent of early Boomers reported to have attended political rallies, protests, speeches, or campaign events compared to just 17 percent of the youngest cohorts. Political contributions are also uneven, with just 8 percent of Generation Z members donating to a campaign or cause, compared to 30 percent of early Boomers.
There are very real attitudinal and behavioral differences between older and younger generations of Americans in the Trump era. Older generations are more engaged, and they continue to dominate the discourse. Those in the political world recognize these differences. Instead of being dumbfounded by aging leaders, Generation Z should participate beyond the politically inconsequential realm of social media — or they will continue to be marginalized on both the left and the right.
A strain of recent commentary holds that Boomers selfishly stole the future from their Millennial and Gen Z children. But the AEI’s data adds another layer to these generational questions. Gen Z are choosing to not participate politically — and they do so at their own peril.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.