Americans have become increasingly divided over the past two decades, and there is no evidence to suggest this trend will be changing anytime soon. According to research by Pew Research Center, the millennial generation, along with gen-z, are vastly different than their boomer and gen-x elders.
Millennials came of age during the Great Recession, and it has stunted their economic prospects, as well as their potential to get married, own a home, and start a family. This generation has never truly recovered from that economic crisis. According to Business Insider, as of 2019, millennials own 3% of all US wealth, with Boomers owning a staggering 60% of all wealth.
One could argue that as boomers have aged, they accumulated more wealth, and millennials will accumulate more wealth as time goes on. But this argument doesn’t hold water once the wealth of millennials is compared to that of boomers when they were the same age. Boomers owned about 23% of all the wealth in the US when they were of similar age to the millennial generation.
It’s no wonder millennials, and their counterparts, generation-z, have been questioning the viability of the capitalist system in recent years. According to a poll released by Gallup in November of 2019, half of millennials and gen-z view the idea of socialism favorably. This would lead any rationally minded American to ask: why do the young view socialism more favorably than their parents?
There has been a narrative in the mainstream media for some time now that the millennial generation is lazy, ungrateful, overly sensitive, and expects the government to give them “hand outs” in the form of government run healthcare and free college education. This argument obviously stems from the ideology of the boomer generation, which tends to lean conservative. The economic data paints a picture of two generations at odds with each other in every way imaginable.
Boomers have always had more wealth than the generations that came after them, and it appears that the millennial generation has little to no chance to organically catch up to their parents by the time they match their age. This could change in the future, but the wealth transfer would be from boomers to their children as the boomers die off, not through the acquisition of middle class jobs and assets like stocks and real-estate. Essentially, America is turning, or perhaps has already turned into, a country where your position in society is determined by the wealth of your parents, and not the product of your labor. This general sense of unfairness has led young people to question the system of capitalism and how it relates to their lives and their own interests. Capitalism is failing our young people while the old are doing better than ever before. America has a class divide along generational lines, and it’s antithetical to the idea of the American Dream.
Young people’s love affair with Bernie Sanders, and his socialist ideas, are nothing new in American politics. Many forget that during the Great Depression, Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, possibly the most “radical” left wing president America has ever seen. He was so popular, he would serve three terms and died in office.
Young people support Bernie Sanders because it is in their interest to support Sanders. Many young people are dealing with an ungodly amount of student loan debt, with the total amount of outstanding student debt topping $1.5 trillion in 2019. The delinquency rate, or those who have missed payments for over 90 days, is at 11.4%, and increasing. Bernie Sanders has promised to eliminate all student loan debt through a debt forgiveness program which would essentially erase the debt owed by anyone with a student loan.
With so many young people being pushed into college by their elders at 18 years old, can we really blame them for the student debt crisis? It is arguably the parents of millennials that are at fault for their children being in so much debt. It was with the guidance of the boomer generation that so many young people racked up thousands in debt in hopes of achieving their version of the American Dream. But with the cost of college skyrocketing every year, and no substantial relief to students coming from the current administration, it’s no wonder that Bernie has such an appeal among the under 40 age group.
This year there will be an election in America that will shape the decade to come. It will ultimately be decided by the young, or the old, depending on turnout. Since young people have interests that are starkly different than their well-off elders, the election of 2020 will ultimately come down to who can excite their base enough to turnout a large number of the young or the old. Since older Americans tend to vote at a much higher rate than young people, the reelection of Trump seems like a safe bet.
However, if the Democratic party nominates a truly progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, he may be able to rally enough support and excitement from young liberals that he could land on top in the election. It is unfortunate for Sanders though, that the young tend to be less dependable when it comes to voting in elections. But there is something to be said about Sanders’ strategy. He aims to bring young voters in through a campaign that creates excitement, something many political scientists and pundits tend to overlook because it is difficult to quantify. The emotional nature of human behavior cannot be understated, and if Bernie is successful in snatching the nomination of the Democratic party, he may be able to create enough excitement around his nomination that he attracts young voters that will turnout in November. His strategy has yet to fully play out, and we will see in the coming months if Sanders’ strategy works.
As new data rolls in from the Democratic primary process, we will have a much better understanding of who will get the nomination, and their odds in a match up against Trump. Whoever the nominee will be, it is obvious that the divisions in American political and social life are only getting wider. The 2020s appear to be showing that there will be an inter-generational conflict that will continue into this decade. This is due to the economic conditions that have been perpetuated by the baby boomer generation as they continue to gain wealth. Their children and grandchildren own less and less of the American dream, and this will shift the ideological alignment of the generations.
One hope for young liberals in 2020 is this: millennials and generation-x now outnumber the baby boomer generation, and if they have a turnout that at least matches the boomers, then the Democrats should win the popular vote in November. This does not guarantee an electoral college victory, which is the only one that really matters.
Nothing about the future is certain, but it is highly likely that as we continue into the 2020s, if the gap in generational wealth holds, and current economic trends continue, the children of America will find themselves ideologically very different from their parents if they understand how to vote in their interest.
Whoever wins in 2020 will continue to lead a nation deeply divided, and there appears to be little to no way to bridge that divide coming from either party.
We live in interesting times.