After 2016 Election, Will Millennials Know How to Use Their New Power?

Millennials replace boomers as the electorate's largest generation. Will policy reflect their rising political influence?

ED OAK, IA - NOVEMBER 04: Voters get an 'I VOTED TODAY' sticker after casting their ballots on election day at the Red Oak Fire Department November 4, 2014 in Red Oak, Iowa. (National Journal)

In presidential politics, the Millennial Moment is arriving. The question is whether this electoral tipping point will also produce an overdue realignment in policy.

ED OAK, IA - NOVEMBER 04: Voters get an 'I VOTED TODAY' sticker after casting their ballots on election day at the Red Oak Fire Department November 4, 2014 in Red Oak, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)In 2016, for the first time, members of the millennial generation will almost exactly equal baby boomers as a share of adults eligible to vote, according to projections from the nonpartisan States of Change project. The project forecasts that, next year, millennials (which it defines as those born between 1981 and 2000) will represent 30.5 percent of eligible voters, virtually matching the baby boomers' 30.7 percent. By 2020, boomers will shrink to about 28 percent of eligible voters, while millennials rise past 34 percent, the project forecasts.

Because eligible older adults vote more reliably than younger ones, millennials almost certainly won't catch boomers among actual voters next year. But that day is nearing: Millennials could cast more ballots than baby boomers by 2020. As recently as 2008, baby boomers represented twice as many eligible voters as millennials and nearly three times as many actual ones.

This transition is ending a dominant run for baby boomers, the huge cohort born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers eclipsed the GI Generation that fought World War II as the largest share of eligible voters in 1980 and passed them as the biggest bloc of actual voters in 1984, Census figures show. They have reigned as the largest generation on both counts in every presidential race since.

But now boomers are giving way to millennials (and the first post-millennials, who will cast ballots in 2020). This inexorable generational transition could lift Democrats and challenge Republicans—if current loyalties hold. Though baby boomers first emerged as a culturally liberal force, the generation is about 80 percent white and it has moved right (particularly on spending) as it has grayed: Republicans won about three-fifths of whites ages 45 to 64 in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections.

Democrats have performed much better with millennials, who are more secular (one-third are religiously unaffiliated) and diverse (more than 40 percent are nonwhite). Though Democrats have lost some ground with millennials since President Obama's 2008 victory, he still carried 60 percent of them in 2012. Particularly on cultural issues, Democrats have aligned their agenda more closely than Republicans have with millennial views. More than three-fourths of millennials back gay marriage. In a recent ABC"Š/"ŠWashington Post poll, nearly two-thirds of them said they wanted the next president to act on climate change, and almost three-fifths preferred a president who would legalize undocumented immigrants. And while millennials look skeptically at all big institutions, polls have found them more receptive than older generations are to a larger government providing more programs and services. (Although white millennials view government more skeptically than their minority peers, those younger whites are more open to expansive government than are older whites.)

The biggest Democratic challenge with millennials isn't ideology; it's performance. During Obama's two terms, the generation has struggled economically. Compared with earlier generations at the same age, millennials are more likely to be poor and less likely to be married. Most important, today's households headed by 25- to 32-year-olds have accumulated only half as many financial assets as their counterparts had in 1984—even though more young people today hold college degrees.

Millennials are straining to advance partly because so many entered the labor market after the 2007 financial crash. But the generation's unprecedented student-debt load has compounded its problems. About two-thirds of millennials, compared with only about two-fifths of later baby boomers, say they borrowed to attend college.

That disparity points to a larger generational contrast. While baby boomers benefited in their youth from increasing public spending—on everything from interstate highways to the big state-university systems—millennials have faced a sustained squeeze on investments in their future. That shift is encapsulated by eroding taxpayer support for public higher education, a key pathway to upward mobility. Robert Hiltonsmith, senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank Demos, recently reported that state appropriations now cover only 44 percent of educational costs for public colleges and universities, down from two-thirds in 2000. That has shifted costs partly to the federal government (through rising Pell Grants) but mostly to students and their families. The contrast with the baby boomers is revealing: Measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, tuition for public universities increased by about $450 from 1964 to 1976, while waves of boomers attended. By contrast, public-university tuition soared by more than $3,200 from 2001 to 2012 as the millennials poured onto campuses.

Compounding the generational inequity, millennials can expect higher taxes during their working years to fund Social Security and Medicare for the aging boomers. Millennials' growing political clout is shifting policy on cultural issues like gay marriage. But the real test of the generation's rising prominence will be whether it forces the political system to invest more in education, health, and training programs that support its future productivity—even if that means shifting resources from the retirement of the baby boomers, who the millennials are poised to surpass.