Younger voters eclipse Baby Boomers for first time

Millennials and members of Generation X accounted for a larger number of votes in the 2016 elections than did Baby Boomers and older generations, marking a generational shift that is likely to influence the way both Democrats and Republicans approach a changing electorate.

A new report by Richard Fry, a labor economist at the Pew Research Center, found that those under the age of 51 — Generation X and Millennials — accounted for just shy of 70 million votes in 2016. Baby Boomers and members of the Silent and Greatest Generations accounted for just under 68 million votes.

Baby Boomers still account for the single greatest share of the electorate. The 48.1 million votes boomers cast in 2016 represented about 35 percent of the electorate.

But the inevitable aging process is conspiring against older generations: The Silent and Greatest Generations are experiencing precipitous decline in vote share as members grow older and die. The number of Baby Boomer voters peaked at 50.1 million in the 2004 election; the fast-growing Millennial generation still has room to expand.

“The influence and clout of the Baby Boomers is waning, and Millennials are rising,” Fry said in an interview.

Baby Boomers have been the largest single generation in the electorate since the 1984 election. But their population has long since peaked, while the number of Millennials aging into the electorate is not expected to peak until 2036, according to Census Bureau calculations.

Generation X is nearing its peak population, too. The Census Bureau estimates members of Generation X will top out in 2018, before mortality rates begin to overtake growth fueled by immigration.

Despite their greater numbers, Millennials have been slower than previous generations to adopt robust voting habits. Half of eligible Millennial voters turned out in 2008, and 49 percent turned out in 2016 — far below the 69 percent of eligible Boomers and 63 percent of eligible Gen Xers who showed up. 

Earlier generations have seen turnout increase as they age, and if that holds true for Millennials, millions more will show up to vote in future years.

“The Millennial population and the Millennial electorate, they’re going to continue to grow in size. So far their turnout hasn’t really materialized,” Fry said. “We would expect their turnout to increase more as they mature.”

The rise of the Millennial generation as a voting bloc raises hopes — and red flags — for Democrats. Members of that generation hold broadly more liberal views than earlier generations, and they favor Democrats by a wider margin than any other generation backs one party or the other. 

Pew Research Center polling in 2016 showed Millennials favored or leaned toward Democrats by a 21-point margin. Members of Generation X favored Democrats by an 11-point margin, while Baby Boomers were evenly split and members of the Silent Generation favored Republicans by 7-point edge.

“To the extent that they do turn out, they do tend to clearly lean Democratic,” Fry said.

But Millennials are far less likely to align themselves with societal institutions, whether an organized religion or a trade union — or a political party. That means those younger voters may be more susceptible to overtures from the other side of the aisle than their predecessors.

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