At this rate, Gen X might never get to be president of the United States of America

Generations over political persuasions.
Generations over political persuasions.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Donald Trump’s election marks the fourth Baby Boomer in a row to inhabit the Oval Office. At the end of his four years in office, Trump’s election will mean 28 straight years of control for his generation—32 if re-elected.

Thirty-two years seems like a long time for a single generation to dominate the White House. As such, it seems inevitable that at the end of Trump’s run, the presidency will undergo generational change, and the final Baby Boomer will hand over the keys to a member of Generation X.

But we should not be so sure. If history is any guide, the next several elections won’t simply feature two parties with contesting visions fighting over the White House, but three vastly different generations with their own ideas about America: the Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964), Gen X (b. 1965-1982), and the Millennials (b. 1983-2000). (There is a lot of talk about the blurry boundaries of each of these generations, but let’s stick to these rough years for the sake of clarity.)

A quick examination of presidential birthdays shows just how much they tend to bunch up not just in generations, but it actual birth years. Trump will be the third president born in 1946: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also share his birth year. The next oldest are a sizeable 22 years their senior: Jimmy Carter and H. W. Bush, who were both born in 1924. Obama, who was born in 1961, is a whole 15 years younger than his predecessors. (Trump is also the oldest-ever elected president, at age 70.)

If Trump gets elected for a second term, it won’t be the first time a generation has ruled for a whole 32 years. The Greatest Generation (b. 1900-1924), who endured the Great Depression and then fought World War II, produced seven straight presidents, assuming the office with John Kennedy in 1960 and relinquishing it to Boomer Bill Clinton in 1992.

In going from H. W. Bush to Clinton, the presidency jumped over an entire generation, the aptly named Silent Generation (b. 1925-1945), who came home to this new gadget called television after fighting the Korean War. Of its members, John Kerry (b. 1943) came the closest in 2004, but the Silents never got their president. Will Gen X suffer the same fate, losing out to the more sizeable Millennial generation?

Either way, it might be a few more years yet before the Boomers vacate. This is particularly so with Generation Jones, which is the segment born during the last decade of the baby boom. This is the generation likely to feel more youthful nostalgia about the Rolling Stones’ 1978 single “Miss You” rather than 1965’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” who got their science fiction from Star Wars rather than 2001: A Space Odyssey. So far, they have only been represented by Obama, so these late Boomers might keep the Oval Office until Millennials come of presidential-candidacy age by the 2028 election. (You need to be over the age of 35 to be elected president.)

This generational analysis matters because the country is dancing on a demographic tipping point. Although talking heads on the television after this month’s election are chattering about newly emerging social fault lines between Americans—rural versus urban, college-educated versus less-educated, white versus non-white—recent surveys suggest the starkest and most complex fault line may lie between the generations. Therefore, whichever generation takes office might also take the US in a different direction based on their birth year as much as their political affiliation and policies.

Consider this contrast: Millennials, relative to Boomers, are less alarmed by immigration by a 5 to 2 margin. They say that immigrants, in particular Asians and Latinos, “strengthen society” rather than “threaten” its customs and values. Millennials endorse same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization at a greater rate than their Boomer counterparts. They favor a bigger government providing more services. They get married later and are less likely to claim a religious affiliation. They are less concerned about single parenthood.

Millennials do not so much favor diversity as embody it: Only 57% claim to be “white/non-Hispanic,” compared with 72% of Boomers. But not all their positions are liberal. Millennials, by a 5 to 1 margin, favor allowing younger workers to invest their Social Security taxes in private investments; only 58% of Boomers agree.

Boomers, in contrast, are over four times more likely than Millennials to describe themselves as patriotic and are three times as religious. They are more likely than their younger counterparts to believe that morals have declined over the last 50 years. More believe that life in the US has gotten worse rather than better since 1960; millennials hold the opposite opinion. A Boomer majority endorses smaller government that provides fewer services. Indeed, Boomers “are angry at” the government at twice the rate that Millennials are and more describe it as inefficient and wasteful. However, Boomers are almost twice as likely to say it is necessary for people to give up civil liberties to combat terrorism.

And where do Gen Xers fit in all this? They sit squarely in the center along all these dimensions; the perfect middle child tucked into the interior of the American range of opinion and demographics. Gen Xers also carry some social advantages over their younger peers for making it the Oval Office. More of them self-describe their generation as hard-working, self-reliant, and responsible than Millennials do, and are less likely to see themselves as self-absorbed, wasteful, greedy, and cynical. In this way, they act as a social bridge halfway between their older and younger counterparts.

Then there’s the matter of population numbers. Although Millennials are already the largest generation and outnumber Boomers, who reached their voting peak in 2004, the older generation will continue to outnumber Gen Xers until after 2028, right around the time the Millennials begin producing fresh-face aspirants for the office. But despite the fact that Millennials already outnumber them, Xers still vote at much higher rates than their younger counterparts—61% to a mere 46% in 2012.

Thus, one can make a case for each generation. If elected, Gen-X’s generation of politicians could succeed as unifiers of the two generations that bracket it. However, voters may instead skip them, as they did the Silents, lurching between the Boomer and Millennial visions of the country.

So which generation might be next to represent their era’s values and America’s direction? A quick scan of newspaper and magazine articles finds 13 Democratic senators, governors, and cabinet members being whispered about as candidates to take on Trump in 2020. Of those, only five are Xers (Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Tammy Duckworth, Kristen Gillibrand, and Chris Murphy). Five are Jonesers (Andrew Cuomo, Tim Kaine, Amy Klobacher, Kamala Harris, and Michael O’Malley). And the remaining three are early boomers (Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, John Hickenlooper).

It’s too early to tell, but the answer may determine American history for the first half of the 21st century. Boomers may have a slight advantage right now in the number of plausible candidates, but it’s worth pointing out that the only declared 2020 candidate is squarely a Gen Xer: Kanye West, b. 1977.