Charlotte Alter | May 18, 2021
You probably don’t think of 2020 as a generational change election. It resulted in the presidency of Joe Biden, the oldest man ever to take the oath of office. The dramatic week of vote counting, and the subsequent attempts by a sitting President of the United States to subvert the outcome, mean that the election of 2020 will be remembered more as a test for American democracy than one that marked the rising power of a new wave of voters.
But 2020 was a breakthrough moment for the youngest American voters. Last year, I covered how the rise in Millennial political engagement would shape the country in my book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, which is out in paperback this week. Voting data from the election shows that young voters are already reshaping the contours of American politics.
For starters, there are simply more of them. According to new data from the Democratic data firm Catalist, Millennials and members of Gen Z—which together make up the American adults born since 1981— now represent 31% of the electorate, up from 23% in 2016 and just 14% in 2008. Meanwhile, the voting blocs that have long maintained an iron grip on American political power are receding. In 2008, Baby Boomers and older generations (American adults born before 1964) made up 61% of the electorate; by 2020, they were only 44%. “That’s a permanent change,” says Yair Ghitza, chief scientist at Catalist. “And it’s only going to grow from there.”
Young voters also had record turnout: roughly 50%, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, a jump of 11 percentage points from 2016 and likely the highest youth voter turnout since the voting age was lowered to 18. According to Harvard’s annual Institute of Politics poll, 36% of young people now consider themselves politically active, up from just 24% in the year after Barack Obama was elected in what was supposed to be a watershed moment for young Americans.
Biden won roughly 60% of voters under 30, which helped power his wins in key states. According to CIRCLE, the net youth votes in Biden’s favor exceeded his margin of victory in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, four battlegrounds he flipped.
In the same way that Millennials were shaped by their experiences at the dawn of the 21st century, from 9/11 to the election of Obama and the economic recession, it’s clear that the last five years have dramatically shaped how young voters see their role in American politics. Gen Z in particular is stepping into the political arena after being antagonized by Trump, radicalized by the reckoning over racial justice, and demoralized by a year of virtual schooling due to Covid-19.
“I think there’s an urgency, specifically to Gen Z,” says John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. “Millennials are the tip of a spear: their values are significantly different than the values that preceded them in Gen X. Millennials have opened up important conversations around inequality, around climate, around BLM, but now Gen Z is seizing that opportunity, expanding it, and calling it their own.”
It’s not yet clear exactly how the events of the last several years will permanently shape this generation. It took a few years for Millennial political attitudes to come into focus, and much of Gen Z isn’t eligible to vote yet. But it’s clear that this is a generation that has been deeply affected by recent events, and one that understands how to bring those concerns into the political process.
“I have a hard time envisioning a Democratic House, a Democratic President and now a Democratic Senate without the generational shift that we’ve been witnessing and talking about now for a decade,” says Della Volpe.