The United States is a fortress of gerontocracy besieged by a youth rebellion. America’s leaders are old—very old. The average age in Congress has never been higher, and our national leaders are all approaching 80. Nancy Pelosi was born in 1940, Mitch McConnell came along in 1942, and Donald Trump, the baby of this power trio, followed in 1946, making him several weeks older than his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are 77 and 78 years old, respectively. Every individual in this paragraph came into the world before the International Monetary Fund and the CIA; before the invention of the transistor and the Polaroid camera; before the Roswell UFO incident and the independence of India.
The nation’s finances are almost as skewed toward the elderly as its politics are. Americans 55 and up account for less than one-third of the population, but they own two-thirds of the nation’s wealth, according to the Federal Reserve. That’s the highest level of elderly wealth concentration on record. The reason is simple: To an unprecedented degree, older Americans own the most valuable real estate and investment portfolios. They’ve captured more than 80 percent of stock-market growth since the end of the Great Recession.
Americans under the age of 40, for their part, are historically well educated, historically peaceful, and historically law-abiding. But this impressive résumé of conscientiousness hasn’t translated into much economic or political power.
Instead, young Americans beset with high student debt ran into the buzz saw of a painful recession and slow recovery. Today they are poorer, in income and in wealth, than similarly young groups of previous decades. “In the U.S, as in the U.K. and in much of Europe, 2008 was the end of the end of history,” says Keir Milburn, the author of Generation Left, a book on young left-wing movements. “The last decade in the U.K. has been the worst decade for wage growth for 220 years. In the U.S., this generation is the first in a century that expects to have lower lifetime earnings than their parents. It has created an epochal shift.”
Young Americans demanding more power, control, and justice have veered sharply to the left. This lurch was first evident in the two elections of Barack Obama, when he won the youth vote by huge margins. And young Americans didn’t edge back to the political center under Obama; they just kept moving left. Obama won about 60 percent of voters younger than 30 in the 2008 primary. Bernie Sanders won more than 70 percent of under-30 voters in the 2016 primary, which pushed Hillary Clinton to the left and dragged issues like Medicare for All and free college from the fringe to the mainstream of political debate.
To many observers, it might seem like young voters have remade the Democratic Party in their image—as a claque of “woke” socialists. In May, the historian Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann, a research analyst, wrote in The Atlantic that the U.S. was at the brink of a great generation war, in which older conservative Republicans would do battle with Democrats, who were “rapidly becoming the party of the young."
But upon closer examination, the Democrats aren’t really the party of the young—or, for that matter, of social-justice leftists. In the most sophisticated poll of the Iowa caucus, Joe Biden polled at 2 percent among voters under 30, within the margin of error of zero. Nationally, he is in single digits among Millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996. Yet Biden is the Democratic front-runner for the 2020 presidential nomination, thanks to his huge advantage among older voters—especially older black voters—who are considerably more moderate than younger Democrats.
Bernie Sanders, by contrast, leads all candidates among voters under 30 and polls just 5 percent among voters over 65. In a national Quinnipiac poll asking voters which candidate has the best ideas, Sanders crushes Biden 27 percent to 4 percent among those under 35 and receives an equal and opposite crushing at the hands of Biden among voters over 65: 28 percent to 4 percent.
Age doesn’t just divide Republicans and Democrats from each other, in other words; age divides young leftists from both Republicans and Democrats. Democrats under 30 have almost no measurable interest in the party’s front-runner. Democrats over 65 have almost no measurable interest in the favored candidate of the younger generation. This is not a picture of Democrats smoothly transforming into the “party of the young.” It’s evidence that age—perhaps even more than class or race—is now the most important fault line within the Democratic Party.
It might be most useful to think about young progressives as a third party trapped in a two-party system. Radicalized by America’s political sclerosis and economic and social inequality, they are a powerful movement politically domiciled within a larger coalition of moderate older minorities and educated suburbanites, who don’t always know what to do with their rambunctious bunkmates.
What would this progressive third party’s platform look like? In one word, justice: Social justice, sought through a reappraisal of power relationships in social and corporate life, and economic justice, sought through the redistribution of income from the rich to the less fortunate.
One can make out the contours of this agenda in “Hidden Tribes,” a 2018 study of the political views of 8,000 Americans, which sorted the country’s voting-age population into seven political groups. The study called the youngest and most left-wing group in the survey Progressive Activists. They accounted for 8 percent of the population and as much as one-third of likely voters in the Democratic Party, due to their higher-than-average engagement in politics. (I don’t want to imply that Sanders voters and the Progressive Activist tribe are synonymous: The demographics of Elizabeth Warren's support suggest that she attracts a large number of Progressive Activists too.)
Compared with the average American, Progressive Activists—“young, secular, cosmopolitan, and angry”—were more likely to be under 30, college-educated, and white; twice as likely to say they never pray; and three times as likely to say they’re “ashamed” of the country. They are motivated by the existential threat of climate change, strongly pro-immigration, and more concerned about police brutality than about crime or terrorism. Perhaps most distinctive, they are attuned to structural challenges in society and skeptical of the individualist strain of the American dream. In response to a question about whether personal responsibility or broader socioeconomic factors are more important for determining success, 95 percent of Progressive Activists said that “some people’s situations are so challenging that no amount of work will allow them to find success.” Most Americans, including 69 percent of moderates, preferred this statement: “People who work hard can find success no matter what situation they were born into.”
This group’s support for Medicare for All, free college, and student-debt relief is sometimes likened to a “give me free stuff” movement. But every movement wants free stuff, if by free stuff one means “stuff given preferential treatment in the tax code.” By this definition, Medicare is free stuff, and investment income is free stuff, and suburban home values propped up by the mortgage-interest deduction are free stuff. The free stuff in the tax code today benefits Americans with income and wealth—a population that is disproportionately old. Medicare for All might be politically infeasible, but it is, taken literally, a request that the federal government extend to the entire population the insurance benefits now exclusively reserved for the elderly. That’s not hatred or resentment; it sounds more like justice.
Most Americans over 40 support several measures of both social justice and economic justice. But across ethnicities, many Americans have a deep aversion to anything that can be characterized as “political correctness” or “socialism.” And this might be the biggest challenge for the young progressive agenda.
For example, the Democratic presidential candidates who focused most explicitly on sexism and racial injustice have flamed out. In its premortem for Kamala Harris's presidential run, The New York Times quoted one anonymous adviser who blamed the candidate’s struggles on the misguided idealism of her younger staffers, who took their cues from an unrepresentative sample of Twitter activists. Beto O'Rourke’s campaign, too, was widely derided as a shallow attempt to create viral moments for his woke online followers. Notably, these candidates failed to win much support among the very demographic groups for which they were advocating.
Second, the progressive economic agenda might be suffused with the egalitarian ethic, but its landmark policies aren’t that popular. While Medicare for All often polls well, its public support is exquisitely sensitive to framing. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the net favorability of eliminating private insurance or requiring most Americans to pay more in taxes—both part of the Sanders plan—is negative-23 points.
The Medicare for All debate is a microcosm of a larger divide. The young left’s deep skepticism toward capitalism simply isn’t shared by previous generations. According to Gallup polling, Gen X is firmly pro-capitalist and Baby Boomers, who came of age during the Cold War, prefer capitalism over socialism by a two-to-one margin. (You can point out to your parents that Social Security and Medicare are, essentially, socialism for the old, but that’s not the same as converting them into Berniecrats.)
“This is only the halfway point of an epochal change in Western politics following the Great Recession,” Keir Milburn says. The far right has responded with calls for xenophobic nationalism to preserve national identity, while the left has responded with calls for social democracy to restore socioeconomic justice. “I must admit that the far right is ascendant, but they have no answer to the future because they’ve given up on the future. The young left has identified that the future of adulthood no longer feels viable to many people, and it’s putting together a different vision.”
Assuming Milburn’s analysis is correct, the young progressive movement will have to shed its first adjective in order to gain power. In 2016, voters older than 40 accounted for nearly three-fifths of all primary voters. It is impossible to win a national election by running a campaign of generational warfare that runs counter to, or directly indicts, a majority of the electorate. One way or another, America’s third party will have to grow up.