Lori Sturdevant: The political generation gap

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2011 - 4:13 PM

This has implications for the next election, not to mention the next holiday.

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Here's news that will overjoy the hosts of this week's extended-family Thanksgiving gatherings: A big generation gap has reappeared in American politics.

That was the back-to-the-future word earlier this month from the pollmeisters at the Pew Research Center.

It's not so much that the Boomers (born 1946 to 1964 or so) and their kids (the Millennials, born 1982 to 2000 or thereabouts) are deeply at odds. The kids are higher on President Obama than are their parents. But it's not Nixon/McGovern all over again.

But the Pew folks suggest that if Aunt Dorothy or Uncle Ed from the Silent Generation (1928 to 1945) come for dinner and talk turns to politics, better hope that the turkey and stuffing contain some mellowing agents.

The Silents and the Millennials each comprise 17 percent of the nation's registered voters, Pew reported. Beyond that, they have little in common, politically speaking.

An October survey found 62 percent of Millennials and only 42 percent of Silents inclined to vote to reelect Obama in a hypothetical matchup with Republican Mitt Romney.

America's 66- to 83-year-olds came of age liking Ike. Today, many of them told Pew that they pine for Eisenhower's America -- smaller, simpler, less diverse.

The Millennials, meanwhile, are more diverse. Two of five of them are nonwhite or Hispanic, compared with about one of five in the Silent Generation.

Probably not coincidentally, the biggest generational fault lines in the Pew poll lie in the difference between Silent and Millennial responses to questions about race and immigration.

For example: Six of 10 Millennial respondents said that more interracial marriage is "a change for the better" in this country.

Fewer than three in 10 Silents agreed.

Another topic you might be advised to avoid as you pass the green bean casserole is same-sex marriage.

Note the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll on the question that will appear on the 2012 state ballot: Shall "only a union of one man and one woman ... be valid or recognized as a marriage?"

Seventy percent of those older than 65 support the amendment, the Nov. 2-3 poll found. Only 33 percent of the under-35 set do.

"Same-sex marriage is a big issue with students," reported David Bly -- a fellow with reason to care about such findings.

Bly is a former DFL state representative who lost his seat to Republican Rep. Kelby Woodard in 2010 by just 37 votes. His hometown: Northfield. Bly's house sits between St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.

Bly is mounting a comeback bid in 2012. An obvious strategy for him involves getting students at those colleges to vote.

Turnout near campuses fell off dramatically in 2010 from 2008 -- for example, 45 percent in the precinct that includes the St. Olaf campus. Similar off-the-cliff declines were seen in other college environs around the state last year.

Student opposition to the same-sex marriage ban that's on the 2012 ballot is in Bly's favor. Less so is the huge asset he enjoyed in 2008 -- Barack Obama.

Despite Pew's report that Obama is still the young voters' choice, Bly can't bank on the president's appeal for get-out-the-vote enthusiasm. A New York Times headline last Tuesday summed up this year's changed reality: "Students Lose Zeal for Aiding Obama Again."

Young voters are disappointed in the president's record, Bly said. "Students want to know why we're not addressing global warming and energy issues. And of course they're worried about their economic future. Will there be jobs?"

If those anxieties drive down young-voter turnout again next year, it's trouble for Bly and his fellow DFLers.

But Bly says he detects a change in student mood this year, perhaps inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It's sharper, angrier -- yet optimistic, too.

"There's growing excitement about trying to make change at the federal level. The young people I meet want to pressure Obama and other politicians to make this economy work for everyone."

It's not doing that now. What's fascinating is that the generation Pew says is most unhappy with Obama's leadership is also the one that's been faring best economically.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of households headed by an adult over age 65 grew 42 percent. For households headed by someone under age 35, it dropped 68 percent.

So, dear Millennials, if the Silent Generation rep at your Thanksgiving table starts grousing about the nation's decline, you'd be justified in asking what his generation has to complain about.

But this Boomer mom urges that, instead, you take another bite of mashed potatoes and silently resolve to help turn out the youth vote next year.

* * *

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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