A diverse young generation is ready to change our politics and culture, but our congressional leadership and presidential options remain geriatric. It’s not just the normal politics of aging: the baby boomer generation has maintained extraordinary power and influence throughout its life course. Kevin Munger, a professor at Penn State University, finds that generational conflict is inevitable as the baby boomers retire but maintain their political influence against much more diverse, less religious, and more liberal rising generations. The institutions boomers built are losing credibility, but we should not expect their power to wane.
Guest: Kevin Munger, Penn State University
Matt Grossmann: Why the baby boomers rule American politics this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. While diverse generation of young Americans stands ready to change our politics and culture, our congressional leadership and presidential options remain geriatric. And this isn’t just an age gap. The baby boomer generation has maintained extraordinary power and influence throughout its life course. How did the boomers take power and are any of the following generations likely to emerge as a counterweight anytime soon? This week, I talk with Kevin Munger of Penn State University about his new Columbia book, the Generation Gap: Why the Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture. He argues that generational conflict is inevitable as the baby boomers retire, but maintain their political influence against a much more diverse, less religious and liberal rising generation. The institutions boomers built are losing credibility, but that doesn’t mean we should expect their power to wane. Here’s our conversation, which started with a summary of his concept of boomer ballast.
Kevin Munger: Part of the angle of the book is that there are a lot of things going on generationally right now and in terms of age. So I try to condense all of that into a single phrase, which is boomer ballast. So the argument is essentially that today the baby boomer generation is distinctly powerful as a generation and as a group of older people. So this combines multiple causes. And so I don’t have a clean causal story. That’s sort of why I had to turn this into a book rather than a paper, but generations are generally not taken seriously I feel like, and I wanted to demonstrate A, that yes, generations are an important organizing group identity in American politics today. And B, that the baby boomers are the unique generation in American history.
Matt Grossmann: So tell us about how the book came to be and maybe how it evolved from the plans and your previous work on media, social media and change over time.
Kevin Munger: Right. So I did not set out to study this. The fact was that in 2016, the world of digital political communication changed dramatically. There’s a big emphasis on studying misinformation, fake news, and a consistent finding from this research was that older people were much more likely to have been exposed to and share misinformation. And that was the first step on the journey towards this book. Second, I was doing some research trying to probe how people evaluate clickbait headlines and other types of digital media in the context of a survey where a standard method is to use an online survey to recruit subjects and run survey experiments. But I was noticing that when I asked people to open a new tab during the survey and then come back and do so, like look up a piece of information on the internet and return to the survey, there was massive attrition differential in age.
So older people were much more likely to simply stop taking the survey at that point. And I wanted to find out why. This led me to the theory of digital literacy, that there are ways in which we learn how to use the internet and to navigate the online information environment, which are very different in generational terms in the US today. So that was the connection between my digital media work and this book. And ultimately, as I kept digging, it seemed like this was a really important topic, certainly something that is connected to digital media in terms of who uses what type of media and media more broadly in the US today. And I ultimately decided, yeah, I can’t do this in a paper. So I’m going to write a book.
Matt Grossmann: So generations, especially with the named generations, like the boomers and millennials tend to be brought up by marketing consultants and people outside of social science and tend to have not as much respect within social science, especially the idea that there’s some sort of cutoff at some sort of birth date. So convince us that this is a social science phenomenon and give us a sense of when a generation really does become real as a social and political actor.
Kevin Munger: Right. So the fact is that this is a very zeitgeisty idea. Certainly in pop culture, people love to talk about millennials. And if you look at the track of Google trends searches over time, quite clearly the discussion of millennials starts in about 2014. And then a few years after that, we started seeing a kind of response and people discussing boomers. But so it’s clearly in the air. And I think that in fact, it is so popular that it has trivialized any discussion of generations when in fact it is a real phenomenon. So the topic was introduced in a very coherent way with the legendary sociologist, Karl Mannheim, who wrote a paper on the problem of generations, which spun a lot of research on this, but this was back in the early 20th century, 1906, I think.
And so has been a topic of academic research and social science for a long time. Even going back to Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism was very interested in the way in which generational replacement determined the rate of progress in a society. So it is a real social phenomenon, and it is especially important in the US today, precisely because of the baby boomer generation. So in terms of emphasizing its uniqueness, it is the only generation that is designated by the census as such. And a point I try to bring up as often as possible, the entire generation was awarded the Time Person of the Year award in 1967 as the inheritors, right? So they were inheriting a uniquely prosperous and free world. And the Time Magazine gave them their famous Person of the Year award just for being born. So this fact is obscured by the intergenerational sniping and the jokes about millennials avocado toast.
Matt Grossmann: But a lot of the sociological research that does try to take seriously period and age effects, as well as cohort effects finds more period and age effects than cohort effects. And that that does talk about cohort effects doesn’t usually sort of have some sort of direct matchup with the popularly conceived generations and often finds many more micro generations, especially in politics. So I guess convince us that not just generations in general, but that these particular generations are meaningful. And if so, how do they become so?
Kevin Munger: So this is a very fair point, which is that these would not be the places that if we had to look back actually, where the lines should be drawn. So I think the most compelling analysis from a kind of hard nosed quantitative political scientist who’s skeptical of all this nonsense perspective is a paper by Andrew Gelman, which looks at the effect of the presidential approval ratings when young people are coming of age and seeing how this leaves a permanent trace on their partisanship that persists throughout the life cycle. And clearly there are micro generations that he and his co-author identify, which do not line up with the generations that are imposed by the census and then by the peer research center. But which demonstrate that these cohort effects are a real thing in determining partisanship, which is the bedrock of American political behavior. So I think that the case for generations now is the United States and the case for these specific generations has to come from media.
So the generations are indeed imposed by advertisers and by researchers who are trying to make sense of large pop culture trends. But those are also extremely powerful forces in our society. These are not acting outside of society. They are feeding back into the society, the categories that they impose on it, and people internalize them and use them as a source of identity. So I think we can look at, for example, differential rates among people today who are identifying with their birth generation. And it varies a lot.
The baby boomers are much more likely people, sorry, people who are born in the age range, which technically define the baby boomer generation are much more likely when prompted to say, I’m a baby boomer than our gen X or millennials. Millennials are actually considerably higher than gen X, gen X is a low point of generational identification and so much else. And the gen Z is actually the highest. And it’s hard to say, of course, because of the age period problem you point out. But it does seem that there’s a coherent story to be told about the media that is affecting how people identify with their generation.
Matt Grossmann: So we also have, of course, big changes in the population of who is in these generations. You discussed the racial composition differences, which are very different. Of course there’s also education and religion and changes like that. So to what extent is sort of the social changes that are coming first to the youngest generations, sort of responsible for these generational differences?
Kevin Munger: So this is the classic age period cohort problem. And I’m not really able to answer it in this book. And in fact, I don’t try to. The one case in which I do is when it comes to the composition of members of Congress. So here we’re very easy to see changing age patterns among members of the House and Senate, both of them are older than ever before. And we can see that there’s a clear generational story. Although bracketing that briefly, it really is the people born during World War II who are the most unique generation. So it’s the people born between 1940 and 1950, basically that stand out in terms of their access to power today. So I am not trying to solve the HPA cohort problem other than that case. And this is because I actually don’t think it’s the most interesting thing we could do.
So what I’m trying to say, and the reason why I have to write a book and abandon my usual method of identifying a single causal effect is to say that there are many different causes, many of which are uncorrelated, some of which are correlated, but still distinct, that are causing the current effect, which is boomer ballast, which is the disproportionate control of demography, the economy, housing, political power, and the media that a single generation holds today.
And I’m trying to say that this is the effect and that what is the effect of that? What is the cause of that effect? Sorry. What does boomer ballast do? It has occurred for let’s say basically random reasons. We can point to different mechanisms that are all pointing in the same direction. I’m not able to tease out the different magnitude of those causes. And frankly, when it comes to how just historicist this argument is, I don’t think that it’s trivial to generalize this to any other period or even location. So the point is to identify the fact that American politics is different now than it was before. Boomer ballast is a way to think about it and then think through how that is going to affect American politics in other ways.
Matt Grossmann: So one big difference in the age groups is participation. And of course that stands out a lot in midterm years like the one we’re speaking in. There was a lot of discussion recently that the young generation was going to be a little more mobilized and much more democratic, but in certainly in 2018, there was a surge in turnout overall that led to more young people voting. But is there any sign that that’s likely to continue into 2022? And do the patterns that we’re seeing under Trump and Biden at all kind of disrupt, should they disrupt people’s view of generational changes likely to lead us into a democratic direction as more young people age into voting?
Kevin Munger: So this is a longstanding dream of to get the young people more involved in politics, but both in terms of the age story is very consistent. And there is a consistent cohort effect where each new cohort is less likely to vote than the one that came before it even holding age costs. So we do have some APC analysis, but the uptake of 2018, I think, is not likely to continue in 2022. I think that there’s very little effort on behalf of either party, but especially the Democrats. Very little effort on behalf of either party, but especially the Democrats to appeal to the young base. The fact of the uniquely old politicians involved makes this just on its face not an easy argument to make. I do think that youth in a nation from the political institutions and even the act of voting is downstream of how non-represented they feel.
I think that the fact that they do identify as a generation and that this is a clear gap on every dimension from the people in power makes it less likely that they can actually get excited about the prospect of, let’s say, in 2024 voting for the oldest president again against the second-oldest president. It just is not relatable to their experience of the world at all.
Matt Grossmann: That sounds like we’re underrepresented, so we’re not going to make efforts to increase our representation. Is there a way out of that if that is the pattern and that pattern continues?
Kevin Munger: I think the comparative case is helpful, which is to say that I do blame the two party system considerably for this problem. In many other parliamentary democracies, in Europe, you have a third party, which is much more youth-focused. In much of Europe, you have a green party where there are young candidates who are able to get involved early on and this kickstarts a virtuous cycle of youth political participation.
The issues they care about are represented, the people doing the representing are relatable to them and how they see the world and experience things and the existence of the party and getting a toe hold in parliament allows them to build up organizational capacity, build up the habit of participation in more serious ways like mobilizing and being party organizers and just none of that is possible for young members of the two parties in the US.
If you are just really, really into electoral politics, sure, you can go and be a member of the College Democrats but then after that, most people kind of fall out of any kind of organizational drive within this two party system, which is so far removed from how they see the world and the issues they care about.
Matt Grossmann: You also have a chapter on culture, how to reincorporate things like Christmas music and aging movie stars. How is that related to this argument? What does it show? We’ve been talking about all these kind of political system characteristics but it seems like the Boomer ballast extends beyond the political system.
Kevin Munger: Indeed. This is another comparative case. The institutions in the United States, which are more flexible and, in large part, this means more adaptable to the internet and social media, allow Boomer ballast to play out very differently than the unflexible institutions like the two party system or academia or law schools or things where there’s a law against having the kind of novel competition, right? Doctors, lawyers, professors, the youth cannot create alternative versions of these institutions.
In the media, thanks to the proliferation of digital media technology, young people are increasingly creating media for, by, and about themselves. We can trace in the mainstream media, which we still think of as the mainstream media but which is increasingly, simply the media of the Baby Boomers, we see changing patterns in what is being produced, which I argue as part of my larger theory that in today’s digital media economy, demand often creates its own supply because producers of media are so able to measure audience demand.
You’re seeing that the average age of movie stars is going up. The point to individual cases is quite clear. All of the remakes and sequels that dominate the movieplexes today involve the exact same actors as who were in the movies of the Baby Boomer’s youth.
If Tom Cruise is the younger but Boomer actor, par excellence, and then there’s a sequel, which is the new Top Gun movie, he’s still playing the same character. He is still himself. We cannot have another new movie star in this media ecosystem, the level of Tom Cruise, until the amount of demand for Tom Cruise in particular, because of the lifecycle experiences of the Baby Boomers and their disproportionate economic and free time power … We can’t have new generations of movie stars stepping into that place.
That’s just one area where it’s easy to measure, right? There’s lots of good data about who is in what movies over time and so I can actually do this, but if we look at who occupies the primary slots in cable news, for example, or many of the other mainstream media outlets, they tend to be quite old as well. There’s just not a case to be made for younger millennials who want to get involved in this system to try to work their way through the system, given that there’s the opportunity for them to go and make their own YouTube channel where they can speak directly to their audience, find out what their audience wants, and gives them that in idiom, which is quite distinct from mainstream broadcast news.
Matt Grossmann: You also look at the extent to which people actually identify with their generation and you find it’s sort of Boomers first, millennials second. Why is that? What impact does that have?
Kevin Munger: This goes back to the Mannheim theory of generation, and it has to do with the idea of a shared location. There’s a people who are born at the same time who experience the world in a similar way, which gives rise to the idea of a generation and people conceiving of themselves as such.
The Boomers are, again, a historical anomaly in terms of the world they inherited being very different from the world that came before and from basically any other world we’ve ever experienced in terms of broad-based, economic growth, new media technology, broadcast media, which tends to centralize people and bring them together and the experience of going to college and university as a catalyst for many people in this generation.
For millennials, the story is similar but different. The fact in this case seems to be a bit of a … It was forced upon them. The fact of the baby boom, Boomer ballast itself is what created the millennial generation, precisely because the standard age-based story of older people complaining about younger people, precisely because there were so many older people and they were so dominant in the media and cultural spheres, this produces the large-scale interest in millennials as such, which then increases millennial sense of self-identification.
I think that’s actually a different mechanism that’s going on with Gen Z, which has more to do with the fact that this is the first generation which is raised primarily on media that is created for, by, and about themselves. There’s a distinct break in the intergenerational transmission of values and norms and everything that social media represents. The fact that Gen Z is using social media from a very young age means that the longstanding mass media prophesies of acculturation and socialization into existing cultural forms is broken. This means that what … Gen Z is just a radically, could be radically different than what came before in a way that was not possible in a different media technology regime.
Matt Grossmann: You also ask the generations about the issues of concern to them and it’s actually sort of Gen Z that stands out here as meeting the stereotype of what young people are concerned about, climate and education, more than the millennials. Have we misjudged that split versus the broader age split?
Kevin Munger: I do think this breaks down the fact of the imposed categories. I think that it’s much more likely that younger millennials are more similar to Gen Z, and we see this in the cultural discourse, the idea of younger millennials having a lot more in common with Gen Z and that there’s … It makes sense to categorize them in the same way if we were doing so inductively.
They really care about climate change and college student loan debt and increasingly mental health and even gun control. These issues are very different from the issues that are the most important, according to older people who are more concerned about, as you would expect, Medicare, Social Security, healthcare more generally.
Matt Grossmann: Gen X stands out for having low generational consciousness. The funny thing about that is that you would predict that from the stereotypes of Generation X potentially, that they would have mixed feelings about this. How should we see that generation?
Kevin Munger: Well, I go out of my way to make fun of them as often as I can. Largely because so many of my slightly older colleagues are Gen X and, in fact, they and many other people I’ve encountered on Twitter feel quite aggrieved about being left out of this conversation.
The cultural narrative you’re describing is not irrelevant. I think it is less important, though, than the simple demography, that there are many, many fewer Gen X-ers than there are either millennials or Baby Boomers. That keeps coming back to the importance of demography as a driver of American politics, which is deeply underappreciated.
We like to think about things that have a policy solution or which we can talk about in an interesting way but the facts of demography are determined by decisions and random chance from decades ago. There’s nothing we can do about them. There’s no interesting takes to be had. Yet, a country is people. The people that we have are divided according to age in a particular pattern. This affects everything from future birthrates to how the economy is more dynamic or less dynamic to how politics, because of the standard age-based voter turnout is either focused on the young or the old.
I think that just focusing on raw demography as a cause of many things is underappreciated, largely because we like to focus on things where cause and effect are temporally quite close but here cause and effect are decades apart.
Matt Grossmann: This should mean we can predict things better that are going to happen a long time in the future and that prediction should be the millennials will take over, and everyone else will be aggrieved because the birth rates have fallen since the millennials. What do you think?
Kevin Munger: Here is where the different mechanisms cut in different directions. It is true that demography is an important way in which millennials have an advantage over other generations. If we look at the other things on which Boomers have advantages which compounded their demographic power, including economic power and control of major institutions, millennials are lagging behind badly on these. I think this is a common, increasingly common among my specific generation, people, early thirties … The housing situation in major cities is just unbelievable. It is a serious impediment to how we think about how our lives should go and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon.
This issue, which seems like a local issue, is, in fact, for many millennials in my milieu, the defining problem in society today. This is the kind of thing which means that millennials will be a powerful force but the way in which these different advantages compounded for the Boomers will not obtain for the millennials.
Matt Grossmann: Walk us through those mechanisms. First of all, just the breadth, the level of over-representation of the Baby Boomers in politics and then walk us through some of the mechanisms for it.
Kevin Munger: Right. The demography is first. Then the broad-based economic growth, which allows them to enter into the process of developing themselves however they want and then I think it’s the control of many of the major institutions. The golden age of higher education was the mid to late ’60s, many people who are still running our universities today got their PHDs during that time and came into the best job market for PHDs ever and came into the best job market for PhDs ever. And so they’re still sort of sticking around. Many boomers were able to start this process of buying a house and accumulating wealth early on and they’re doing well off as a result. And the demographic weight and these other political and economic advantages played out throughout their life cycle to give them various specific political wins. For example, the Constitutional Amendment which lowered the voting age to 18 happened for the Baby boomers. So this kick started the political socialization process for people who were between 18 and 21. And it happened because of the political demographic power of young people who at the time were Baby boomers. That’s just one example.
I think another important example is the 2008 financial crisis where the government invested trillions in quantitative easing as a way to deal with the financial crisis. They could have injected that money anywhere into the economy. They chose to do it propping up mortgages for houses, which were disproportionately owned by Baby boomers. So there are a variety of political reasons why they chose to do it this way, but the fact of the political power of the boomers and that this is politically consequential to give them government goodies is compounding their advantage throughout their life cycle.
Matt Grossmann: So you look at the support for young and old candidates and you find some evidence that generational consciousness is related. But to me it didn’t seem quite as strong evidence that we’re sort of in a generational polarization on the basis of generation. So we have this okay boomer idea that people have consciousness of their generations and not just their own, but in relationship to another, related to this debate that is often dismissed as a very online get conversation. So, that might be part of the generational dispute. So I guess to what extent do people see it as generational polarization and the generational dispute? And how did you interpret your evidence on support for young candidates, young and old candidates or young and old prioritizing candidates in that light?
Kevin Munger: So yeah, I have a survey experiment, which is looking at whether or not young or old people have a preference for cogenerationalists and for people who prioritize issues related to their generation in particular. There are significant effects on average. They’re not huge as you say, but this is a kind of hypothetical case. And when we go to the real world example of the Democratic primary, there were gigantic differences in which candidate people voted for based on age. In fact, the term generation gap refers to the period in the sixties when young people and older people had different political preferences. But those differences are clearly larger now, in terms of both the Republican, Democrat divide and much more starkly within the Democratic party, the generational divide.
I actually think at this point is somewhat missed going back to the Republican primary in 2016 so epochal, but before Trump had the whole thing locked up, there was a similar generational divide where Cruz and Rubio won a much higher percentage of votes from younger people than did Trump. Trump wrapped it up quicker. So the overall average in the primary, there’s not a big age breakdown. But I think this exists in both parties and in the Republican party, other factors have swamped the generational competition angle, but in the Democratic party, it is the defining cleavage electorally.
Matt Grossmann: Is it a conscious cleavage though? I mean, to what extent do people see it as a generational divide versus ideological or issue based or anything along those lines? And do people see this conversation that’s online about generational differences, is that playing out more broadly?
Kevin Munger: I’m not quite sure how to break this down and isolate the causal factor, which is so often our impulse, but the argument is that these things are very correlated today. That age and policy preference and media style are all very correlated. And so do people self-consciously go into the voting booth and say, “Which one is the millennial candidate?, I want to vote for the millennial.”? I would say probably not, but do they consume media in a context in which the millennial is likely to be producing political content that relates to them and which they encounter in their day to day experience? Probably yes. So there are many pathways by which this generational divide can play out in differential preferences. The consciousness angle is I think real. I think there are lots of research on many different identities and how people self identifying with those different identity groups affects their behavior. I think this is not in the top three on those dimensions though.
Matt Grossmann: And is there any sign of the kind of analog of negative partisanship that this it’s not just people identifying with their own generation, but identifying as an opposition to another?
Kevin Munger: I did find that younger people, I think Gen Z and Millennials were more likely to oppose a politician who said that they would prioritize issues that the older generations cared about. So if there is, it seems to be in the resentment towards the old direction.
Matt Grossmann: So you also find that public policy is oriented toward helping older people. And that’s, of course a repeated finding, to what extent is that explainable by the relative power and engagement of the generations?
Kevin Munger: So the welfare spending of the U.S. for a long time has a higher percentage of it has gone to the elderly than in any other Western democracy. And largely this is because of lack of welfare spending on the non elderly, but as the elderly take up much more and more of the population and they live longer and longer, this spending becomes quite important. So the most obvious case is about social security. So Doug Arnold has a new book about reforming social security, which is great in which I based much of this argument on, but it has been clearly in terms of predicting the future, the actuarial tables behind social security payments could not be more set in stone. And it has been clear for decades that some kind of reform will have to happen to deal with the demographic shift.
And Congress has for decades put off a relatively small increase in the social security tax, which would have bit into the Baby boomers when they were in the workforce and making money and have them pay into social security the amount that they would need to in order to guarantee the full benefits. So as a result, the liabilities of social security are greater than what will be taken in at the current rates. And what will happen is at some point, the lines will cross, the amount of money coming in will be less than the money going out. And either they’re going to cut the social security payments to the retired Baby boomers, or they will have to increase the payroll taxes on the younger generations who are still working. And it’s not going to be the first one because of the power of the older generations politically.
Matt Grossmann: So they might be able to stop change, but I guess, are they responsible for the initial disparity? So, we might think of lots of other reasons why public policy is more geared toward helping the old, but of course there is a story that the ARP as an organization and other generational political influence kinds of stories did matter for this. So should we connect the two? Boomers dominate politics and policy, as a result is geared toward their interests.
Kevin Munger: Yeah, so policy is always geared towards the people who vote the most and have the most influence and are the members of organizations with power influence. And that has always been older people on average. So sure, that effect is what’s caused the system we have today to exist. But even when the Baby boomers were not older people, when they were in the prime of their working age, we could have solved social security problem by raising taxes on them. And we did not because of their power, because that they are a demographically politically powerful group. So I think these two effects are both these both mechanisms both operate and that soon they’ll both be operating even more in the same direction.
Matt Grossmann: So you of course study changes in technology frequently. And that is probably the most pointed to explanation for these generational lines. To what extent should we be connecting changes in technology use as the primary way that generations develop?
Kevin Munger: I think to a large extent, I think that media technology is increasingly alienated world and in our world in which media technology is more available than ever at every moment of our working lives, clearly a major force for everything that happens. And as I said earlier, the fact of social media allowing younger generations to make their own media is a kind of novel phenomenon in history in terms of the breakdown of intergenerational contact and transmission of everything. So I do think the media is a very important part of the story.
Matt Grossmann: And I mean, I guess, is there an argument on the other side that this is that this is sort of an overhyped diversion? As you said, that the ones that really jump out are explained by pure birth rate, that is they were born with a lot of people similar to themselves. So that seems less consistent with what it was about the exact media and communication technology that they had at their disposal.
Kevin Munger: For sure. So when it comes to the kind of argument I’m trying to make, the kind of story I’m trying to tell here, these are both mechanisms that exist. I believe that. When we talk or when you read one article, it’s going to emphasize one of those mechanisms. I’m saying they both exist. The question we might want to ask is one of them explained 40% of the variance, and the other explained 30% of the variance or vice versa? And I don’t think that’s something we can answer with the data we have. So I think these are both mechanisms that exist. I think these are powerful mechanisms that explain things going on in society.
Media technology changing is going to be a powerful mechanism when media technology changes, but not when it doesn’t. And so there’s not like a long total permanent answer to this question in terms of if the birth rate were constant for a hundred years and immigration rates were constant, then demography wouldn’t matter, but it does right now. And that’s explains a significant amount of the variance. And so we should think about that when we explain what’s going on inside America today.
Matt Grossmann: So, as you mentioned, the talk of the generation gap was very high in the 1960s when at least politically the differences were not as strong between the generations as they are now. So why did we have that conversation then? And how is it different then the conversation we’re having today?
Kevin Munger: The Baby boomer generation was a historical anomaly in every way. So they were so different from the generations that came before them in a way that was obvious to the commentators at the time, just very obvious. And so the fact of their rebellion, it was a similar story, but again, different then Gen Z and social media today, the fact of the wealth in society, allowing them more youthful freedoms was somewhat novel, right? And so previous generations had not had that sense of adolescence and that sense of economic security that the boomers had, which is what allowed them to create what the Boomers had, which is what allowed them to create a kind of revolutionary new ideology or way of being in the world, emphasizing personal freedom and the various social constructions downstream with that. So that is, I think, the continuity in American society had been fairly strong in terms of how generations related to each other, but the Baby Boomer generation was the first in which the generation gap in terms of how people in the same family experienced the world was so starkly different.
Matt Grossmann: But it was also, I mean, it was also a caricature, right? There weren’t that many people in college at the time when the image of the Baby Boomers was that they all were in college. How similar is that, I guess the caricature of the Baby Boomers at the time to the caricatures we have today of younger generations?
Kevin Munger: I think that the mass media technology at the time was much more responsible for the sense of generational unity. And so the idea of rocket roll music and their use was something that everyone experienced, right? The Beatles, everyone had the Beatles and their parents didn’t. And so this is what created a sense of community among young people. College, and then the Vietnam, the Vietnam War was the big division within the Boomer generation. So this division plays out in American politics today. The McCain/Kerry election was primarily about Vietnam, which again speaks to the power of the baby boomers.
So sure, there are stark divisions in how individual Baby Boomers experience the world, but on the other, so if we think about identities mattering insofar as they overlap. So Baby Boomers also had a far higher degree of identity overlap. So they were the least racially diverse generation in American history. If you think about the racialization and whiteness construction for immigrants like Irish and Jewish immigrants who eventually became white, were initially racialized. The Baby Boomers are the much more culturally homogenous on the other identity grounds than previous or subsequent generations, which also contributed to their sense of a shared generational identity. And again, this was just like, today is something the media imposed on them. And everyone was talking about them as the census. This is the first generation American history to be defined as generation by the census. So of course the media affects how we think about the world, right? So this was fed back into their self-conception and then became a force in American politics.
Matt Grossmann: So how should we think about age effects, especially in predicting what’s going to happen next? Should we expect that there will be an age effect on both participation and on moves rightward? That is, should we expect the younger generations to start participating more and start moving rightward either with age or with various adulting changes, like having children, owning a house that might have been delayed more than for previous generations?
Kevin Munger: Yeah. I mean, age effects are of these are very well documented. And so I don’t think there’s any reason to think they would not occur here also. How much of age is age itself versus these lifecycle things? That’s harder to disentangle, but I think it’s definitely both in terms of what you’re defining. And then I did try to get into the latest research on this long standing question. Do people become more conservative as they get older? This is a myth that goes back to, Thomas Jefferson was making this joke about if someone is not a Democrat at 15, then they are not good, but if they’re still a Democrat at 20, then they’re also not good, which speaks to how different the life cycle was at the time.
But yeah, this idea is, it’s so culturally ubiquitous that it’s almost as if being old is being conservative. It doesn’t mean anything else. And so when we try to impose our measures on, do you want the tax rate to go down or whatever our specific conception of conservatism is, if they don’t match up to the narrative that everyone believes to be true, that people become more conservative as they age so much the worse for our measures.
Matt Grossmann: Well, in the contemporary debate, it’s pretty important because if you just take the people who run analyses saying, “Well, let’s just assume what happens to changes in the voting population over time, here are all of the 20 states that are going to move toward Democrats in this year if nothing else changes.” That’s very dependent on there not being a conservatizing effect of age, but the response has been that so far, there hasn’t been much one for millennials, for example, and the response to that has been well, all of these things that make the millennials different, they’re marrying and having kids later, they’re having housing, permanent housing later are delaying those, those effects. So to me, it’s important to work that out if we’re trying to evaluate this, this story, at least of the likelihood that these generations will continue to matter in the way that they have.
Kevin Munger: So, but by conservatizing you mean voting Republican?
Matt Grossmann: That certainly is one outcome of conservatizing influence, but I guess I’m not that persuaded that picking an issue is the best way to assess that. If we are going to assess their likelihood of voting Republican, eventually we’re going to want to look at factors that are related to whether they vote Republican, which includes more general measures of ideology.
Kevin Munger: My story here is something like, in terms of predicting the future. The boomer ballast perspective is helpful from these, sorry, demographic inevitability stories, because it says, “Yes, that’s right, ultimately,” but everyone is wrong about when it’s going to happen. People are like, “Why hasn’t it happened yet?” And I say that Boomer power hasn’t peaked yet. So if we look at the number of people who turn 65 in 2023, next year, will be larger than ever before or ever again in American history. And these people have disproportionate economic power. They’re going to have disproportionate free time to consume political media and get involved in politics. They are already the ones running the two political parties, and their power in mainstream political institutions is only going to increase over the next five years, maybe 10. And I think that why the world feels so weird is because the institutions that we have are preventing the revolutionary internet technology and younger generations values from actually affecting things in terms of how the country’s run.
And so there’s this giant tension between the fact of boomer ballast being amplified by all of these other factors and young people just feeling alienated from the entire process. That means that I think that a lot of the longitudinal studies about issue position change are probably not that relevant to this period. And so, as a result, I would say that more likely is the party that is going to win in the 2030s is the one that is first able to fully embrace younger generations and their issues.
And so if they can kickstart that process of building partisan loyalty among younger generations who are largely alienated from the process entirely, that’s going to be the story of who ultimately comes out ahead after the Baby Boomers eventually see power. And I think part of this is going to be a realignment story. I think that the coalitions as they exist in terms of the issues and the groups that matter, most of those groups are not going to exist. So you talked about the gradients, the correlation between age and religion now. The religious component of the conservative coalition has been very important, but the number of religious people in younger generations is dramatically lower. And so this is just a less important factor in society, and thus will have less targeting power within any kind of coalition.
Matt Grossmann: How much does the US stand out in generational politics? Obviously the institutions are different, but many of the forces we’ve been talking about should be globally, or at least globally in the rich world. So to what extent do we have the same generational conceptualization and impact elsewhere?
Kevin Munger: I think it’s very different. I think that the UK has a sense of the Baby Boomers. I think that other generation, other countries, Germany, for example, had a very different historical experience in the living memory of many. And so that generational breakdown exists there, but it’s very different. So I actually don’t think this is going to generalize very well at all. I think it’s specific to all of these factors that were unique in the United States at the time. And I think it is a useful story in many other places to see how the internet empowering young people plays out according to their demographic economic, political backgrounds.
Matt Grossmann: How is this work you’ve been doing on generations likely to impact your other work on use of technology and its impact?
Kevin Munger: Yeah, so I’m focusing a lot more on novel political platforms, which target young people and trying to understand the style. So I think it’s true is at this point, that representative AOC has a very different way of using Twitter and that younger millennials in Congress do so in a very different way. And I’m trying to figure out how to operationalize that and see how that plays out. To try to update the idea of home style, to be digital home style, to see how younger generations feel connected to younger politicians who use the internet in a way that is relatable to them and how that affects this process of politicalization and issue transmission.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the democracy group network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you liked this discussion, I recommend checking out the following episodes, Racial Protest, Violence, And Backlash, How Marriage And Inequality Reinforce Partisan Polarization, How Online Media Polarizes And Encourages Voters, How Rich White Residents And Interest Groups Rule Local Politics, And Anti-immigration Politics Is California’s Past, The Republican’s Future. Thanks to Kevin Munger for joining me, please check out the Generation Gap and then listen in next time.
Photo Credit: iStock