The recent US presidential election highlighted the need to understand growing divisions in US society. A surprisingly overlooked, yet particularly urgent divide is generational.
America’s social contract has long held that you get taken care of when you’re young, you pay your dues as an adult, and then society takes care of you when you’re old. But this cycle, so essential to the functioning of our nation, is breaking down. Instead of working to fix it, young and old appear further apart than ever.
Politically, this divide persists in red states and blue states alike. If only those over 65 voted, estimates predict Donald Trump would have won in an Electoral College landslide, approximately 351 to 182 (with 5 votes too close to call). By contrast, if all voters were under 29, Hillary Clinton would have won in a complete shutout: 538 electoral votes to zero.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1976 presidential election, America’s oldest and youngest voting brackets were a mere 2% apart. Since then, older voters have grown more Republican, and younger ones more Democratic. The past four elections have yielded record-high generational divides of 18%, 42%, 35%, and 26%, respectively.
This growing polarization should be cause for concern no matter what your political ideology. More than an indication of partisanship, it suggests that the young and the old feel like they are living in two increasingly different countries. And, more importantly, it suggests a crack in the basic social contract that is an essential part of American society.
In some respects, generational self-preservation makes sense. Millennials get a fair share of criticism for acting entitled, but the current older population actually enjoys the largest generational wealth gap in history: Households headed by someone over 65 are 47 times wealthier than those headed by someone 35 or younger. At the same time, seniors face legitimate anxieties of their own, evidenced by a 47% rise in age discrimination charges since 1999. Baby Boomers also face resentment from a society not accustomed to such a pronounced strain on governmental resources.
Consequently, older generations do have a justifiable motivation to cling to wealth and influence. They are also determined to avoid the poverty and dependency that used to define growing old in America. In 1939, an estimated 78% of Americans over the age of 64 lived in poverty; even in 1959 (the first year of reliable Census data on the subject), the elder poverty rate hovered around a hefty 35%. This plight was what led the government to create senior-focused social safety nets in the first place, such as Social Security in 1935, and later Medicare in 1965. Many believe that the relatively low elder poverty rate—currently comparable to that of working-age adults, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research—is a direct result of these initiatives.
Still, it is the younger generation who risks not receiving these benefits as they age, despite helping to bankroll them. Growing up during the Great Recession, Millennials also endure the greatest levels of debt and unemployment. Nevertheless, public perception continues to cast them, often, not as victims of poor planning and dwindling government assistance, but rather as entitled, coddled narcissists responsible for their own plight (the “Me Me Me Generation”).
Media narratives have done little to foster intergenerational understanding. Stereotypically, millennials are too busy taking selfies or Snapchatting to drag themselves to a voting booth. But it has also been true for decades that the young have consistently shown comparatively little interest in voting; indeed, those now-older generations, when they were younger, similarly voted less frequently than their elders. Moreover, today’s youth are far from complacent, as indicated by the Canadian youth advocacy organization “Generation Screwed” and Bernie Sanders’ millions of hungry young fans in the US.
Instead of pointing fingers, Boomers, millennials, and members of Generation X need to be working together. After all, generations’ daily lives are increasingly converging. For example, as older people delay retirement at record rates, workplaces contain more generations than ever.
Right now, however, working in close proximity with one another has not necessarily fostered intergenerational cooperation: Nearly 75% of managers still report the presence of generational conflict in their workplaces. Generations perceive each other as miles apart in terms of work values. And somehow, younger and older workers feel equally oppressed by one other. Clearly there is much work to do. To truly make America great again, we must first rebuild the ties between generations.