NEW YORK – The key political divide in the United States is not between parties or states; it is between generations. The millennial generation (those aged 18-35) voted heavily against Donald Trump and will form the backbone of resistance to his policies. Older Americans are divided, but Trump’s base lies among those above the age of 45. On issue after issue, younger voters will reject Trump, viewing him as a politician of the past, not the future.
Of course, these are averages, not absolutes. Yet the numbers confirm the generational divide. According to exit polls, Trump received 53% of the votes of those 45 and older, 42% of those 30-44, and just 37% of voters 18-29. In a 2014 survey, 31% of millennials identified as liberals, compared with 21% of baby boomers (aged 50-68 in the survey) and only 18% of the silent generation (69 and above).
The point is not that today’s young liberals will become tomorrow’s older conservatives. The millennial generation is far more liberal than the baby boomers and silent generation were in their younger years. They are also decidedly less partisan, and will support politicians who address their values and needs, including third-party aspirants.
There are at least three big differences in the politics of the young and old. First, the young are more socially liberal than the older generations. For them, America’s growing racial, religious, and sexual plurality is no big deal. A diverse society of whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, and of the native-born and immigrants, is the country they’ve always known, not some dramatic change from the past. They accept sexual and gender categories – lesbian, gay, trans, bi, inter, pan, and others – that were essentially taboo for – or unknown to – their grandparents’ (Trump’s) generation.
Second, the young are facing the unprecedented economic challenges of the information revolution. They are entering the labor market at a time when market returns are rapidly shifting toward capital (robots, artificial intelligence, and smart machines generally) and away from labor. The elderly rich, by contrast, are enjoying a stock market boom caused by the same technological revolution.
Trump is peddling cuts in corporate taxes and estate taxes that would further benefit the elderly rich (who are amply represented in Trump’s cabinet), at the expense of larger budget deficits that further burden the young. Indeed, the young need the opposite policy: higher taxes on the wealth of the older generation in order to finance post-secondary education, job training, renewable-energy infrastructure, and other investments in America’s future.
Third, compared to their parents and grandparents, the young are much more aware of climate change and its threats. While Trump is enticing the older generation with one last fling with fossil fuels, the young will have none of it. They want clean energy and will fight against the destruction of the Earth that they and their own children will inherit.
Part of the generational divide over global warming is due to the sheer ignorance of many older Americans, including Trump, about climate change and its causes. Older Americans didn’t learn about climate change in school. They were never introduced to the basic science of greenhouse gases. That is why they are ready to put their own short-term financial interests ahead of the dire threats to their grandchildren’s generation.
In a June 2015 survey, 60% of 18-29 year-olds said that human activity was causing global warming, compared with just 31% of those 65 and older. A survey released in January found that 38% of American survey respondents 65 and older favored fossil-fuel expansion over renewable energy, compared with only 19% of those 18-29.
Trump’s economic policies are geared to this older, whiter, native-born America. He favors tax cuts for the older rich, which would burden the young with higher debt. He is indifferent to the $1 trillion overhang of student debt. He is reprising the 1990s NAFTA debate over free trade, rather than facing the far more important twenty-first-century jobs challenge posed by robotics and artificial intelligence. And he is obsessed with squeezing a few more years of profit out of America’s coal, oil, and gas reserves at the cost of a future environmental catastrophe.
One might attribute Trump’s backward-looking mindset to his age. At 70, Trump is the oldest person ever to become president (Ronald Reagan was slightly younger when he took office in 1981). Yet age is hardly the sole or even the main factor here. Bernie Sanders, certainly the freshest mind of all the 2016 presidential candidates and the hero of millennial voters, is 75. The young are enchanted with Pope Francis, 80, because he puts their concerns – whether about poverty, employment difficulties, or vulnerability to global warming – within a moral framework, rather than dismissing them with the crass cynicism of Trump and his ilk.
The main issue here is mindset and political orientation, not chronological age. Trump has the shortest time horizon (and attention span) of any president in historical memory. And he is utterly out of touch with the real challenges facing the young generation as they grapple with new technologies, shifting labor markets, and crushing student debt. A trade war with Mexico and China, or a tragically misconceived ban on Muslim migrants, will hardly meet their real needs.
Trump’s political success is a blip, not a turning point. Today’s millennials, with their future-oriented perspective, will soon dominate American politics. America will be multiethnic, socially liberal, climate conscious, and much fairer in sharing the economic benefits of new technology.
Too many observers remain fixated on the traditional party divides in the US Congress, not on the deeper demographic changes that will soon be decisive. Sanders nearly captured the Democratic nomination (and would likely have triumphed in the general election) with a platform appealing powerfully to the millennials. Their time is coming, most likely with a president they support in 2020.