To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the United States’ 2020 election is full of sound and fury. But if you pay attention to the longer trends, this election signifies something important: the end of an era in U.S. politics, and a glimpse into its future. It may offer a glimpse into the future of U.S.-Canada relations as well.
Children born during the Baby Boom (1946 – 1964) have been the largest cohort in the U.S. electorate since the 1980 election, and as recently as 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney to win re-election, members of the Baby Boom generation represented 49 percent of all eligible voters. In 2016, the Millennial Generation (born between 1981 and 1996) became the largest cohort of eligible voters in the United States.
The Baby Boom generation has dominated American culture — and political culture — for decades. The formative political experiences of protesting against the Vietnam War and for civil rights for African Americans led the generation to embrace causes and challenge authority, but with the election of the first Boomer president, Bill Clinton, born in 1946, in 1992, Boomers began to take over U.S. institutions. George W. Bush and Donald Trump are members of the Baby Boom generation, both born in 1946. Barack Obama, born in 1961, is a late Boomer. Vice-President Mike Pence, born in 1959, and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris, born 1964, are Boomers as well.
Boomers get all the headlines and credit, but they have been closely allied with the generational cohort that preceded them, called the Silent Generation (born 1928 – 1945) because they were unable to make themselves heard amid the stock market crash, the Great Depression and the Second World War. Hard times made them a relatively smaller generation, with just 50 million members at their peak. President-elect Joseph Biden, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi are all members of the Silent Generation who have made themselves heard finally with Boomer support.
What do we know about the newly dominant Millennial Generation, politically? Not much yet, apart from their youthful idealism, which has shown up in protests and activism for social justice, diversity and inclusion of minorities in mainstream social and economic roles, and for action against climate change. That idealism could gradually become tempered by pragmatism as some Millennials have children and add a mortgage to their student loan debts.
By the time of the next U.S. presidential election in 2024, the youngest Boomers will be 60, still young enough to run for national office. But with fewer members of the Silent Generation with us by then, Boomer candidates will need Millennial support to win. In the 2020 U.S. election, Boomer candidates responded to Millennial idealism with ideology, offering arguments about means in response to desire for ends. This mismatch has resulted in esoteric debates about what is and isn’t true socialism, and what constitutes real conservatism, as young voters express anxiety about their personal safety and futures. In 2016, this led to anger, frustration and low voter participation among Millennials. This time around, voter turnout numbers soared, almost certainly buoyed by Millennial participation.
Canadians’ Ringside Seats for 2020
Canadians are likely to be among the first foreigners to figure out what Millennial-led America will look like, given deep economic integration and cultural commonalities both North American countries enjoy. For now, we can only speculate. However, three recent American generations may provide clues.
The Lost Generation (born 1883 – 1900)
This generation came of age during the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic. They felt used by leaders as cannon fodder on the battlefields of Europe and then alienated during the twilight of colonial empires. Immigration surged and transformed countries like the United States and Canada but also set off a fierce competition for jobs in what were then lightly regulated capitalist economies. This generation was cynical about politics and politicians, pessimistic about their economic future, and many gave up trying to make a better world.
The Greatest Generation (born 1911 – 1924)
This generation survived the Great Depression and the Second World War and returned home to take part in a booming American economy. Having seen the ugliness of fascism and communism in the war and its aftermath, this generation was anti-ideological and demanded pragmatic, centrist politics that forced politicians of both parties to the political center.
Generation X (born 1965 – 1980)
Squeezed between the larger Boomer and Millennial generations, Generation Xers are closer to their Silent Generation parents in style. Record-high divorce rates among their parents, the September 11 terror attacks and the 2008-2009 global financial crisis made starting careers and families harder for them, but most toughed it out with relatively little help or sympathy even as their path to leadership in government, business and civil society was blocked by Boomers who hung on to top jobs.
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One of the more disconcerting things about the United States is our tendency to have our policy debates in full view of the public. While Canada might hold public consultations, deliberate the options within government and then announce a policy position, in the United States arguments and speculations about policy options take place in Congress, think tanks and online platforms. This is, however, advantageous for Canada, since the emerging attitudes of the Millennial generation will be observable before the policies that result.
One important Millennial attitude will concern government and politics. Millennials could fall into cynicism about politics after the polarization of the Trump era and see politics as a waste of time, like the Lost Generation did. Or, like Generation X, they may be so overwhelmed by the work of starting a career and raising families amid challenging economic conditions that follow the COVID 19 pandemic that they disengage from policy debates — and before long are overshadowed by the next generation, Generation Z. The best case might be a Millennial turn to pragmatism and away from ideology, in the manner that the Greatest Generation responded to the work and the opportunity of the postwar era.
Another important question will be the Millennial Generation’s views on international relations. Past generations of Americans had contact with foreigners that was shaped by opportunities for travel and access to communications technology. This limited foreign interactions for many. For Millennials, technology has made interaction with foreign people and their cultures possible from a young age. Previous generations had pen pals and the occasional international news item that made the newspaper or radio broadcast. Millennials can engage more deeply with foreigners via TikTok or playing video games together in real time. Technology has made the relationship between younger Americans and the rest of the world far more direct, displacing news media and even governments and diplomacy.
What does this technologically connected world look like for Millennials, and how will it shape their views and expectations of foreign policy? Early indications can be seen in the U.S.-Canada relationship, where public opinion has long supported constructive engagement and conflict management
As the tumult from the November 3 election quiets and America prepares for a transition to a Biden presidency, the future of U.S. politics will begin to emerge as Millennials make their influence felt. Of the future, Shakespeare’s Macbeth said: “Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.” Canadians should look past present fears about the United States, set aside horrible imaginings about how bad things could get and get to know the Millennials, who will inherit a mess but, with Canadian help, may yet make America truly great again.