The battle between generations is as old as time itself. Each generation blames the one before it and is suspect of the one after it. Right now, the generational battle being waged, real or imagined, is between baby boomers and millennials. Numbering 76 million and 73 million respectively, baby boomers are typically defined as those born between 1944-1964 and millennials, between 1980-1994.
The two Democratic presidential front-runners, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, both fall a little north of the baby boomer demographic. But both are best identified by it. While the other Democratic candidates run the spectrum from baby boomer to Generation X to millennials, only one of its candidates has the fervent support of millennials – the oldest candidate in the race, Bernie Sanders.
Assigning a group of people to an identity based on the year they were born is both arbitrary and narrow-minded. These labels can then be weaponized to fuel conflict when, in fact, none may be present. So, exactly how a 77-year-old man has managed to capture the almost undivided attention of millennials has been confounding pundits since he was the Democratic runner-up in 2016. But in digging a little deeper, it becomes much less perplexing.
Where the Democratic front-runner Joe Biden is currently succeeding with his promise to “restore the soul” of the country. Like a chiropractor doing an adjustment on your back, Biden desires to move the country back to where it was. Like a chiropractor, it may make you feel better but it won’t correct the problem.
If Biden is a chiropractor, Sanders is a surgeon.
Where Bernie Sanders is succeeding, as he did in 2016, is by acknowledging that America wasn’t that great before and that real change is needed. Sanders is the only Democratic candidate who has built his idea of change to be in tune with young people. Sanders has a clear picture of who the next generation of Democrats will be, and it’s not baby boomers or Generation X.
Over the past thirty years, wealthy Americans have added to their wealth. However, those Americans not as fortunate, by birth or luck, have slipped into “negative wealth.” Meaning that the value of their debts exceeds the value of their wealth.
An appeal of Sanders is his zeal in going after the top 1% of wealthy Americans. As he has pointed out in his stump speech, it’s three people who own as much wealth as the bottom half of Americans. To define that as anything other than inequality is to not understand the definition of the word.
Inequality is a priority for many Sanders supporters. And while millennials are witnessing and feeling the most inequality, it’s not their only concern. It’s a trio of other issues that have their primary attention, universal health care, student loan debt, and climate change.
It’s no secret that healthcare for the average person in America is abominable, at best. According to eHealthinsurance, coverage for an individual can run around 325 dollars a month, with an average annual deductible of about $4,400. At its worst, health insurance is non-existent.
Not having health insurance is terrifying for anyone, let alone someone who graduates college with 32 thousand dollars in student loan debt (the average amount of debt for graduates in 2019). With the average student loan repayment being around 400 dollars a month, a young person just beginning their life can be left to make a daunting decision.
As most student loans begin repayment after six-months, a young person just starting out can be left deciding whether to pay the loan or pay for insurance. Ignoring either is far from ideal, but only one can turn around and wreak havoc on your financial future if you ignore it.
The student loan market was small before 2000, just about 200 million dollars. By 2018, it had ballooned to 1.4 trillion dollars. A large part of Bernie Sanders’ appeal to younger voters is that he recognizes that having to decide between paying for health insurance and re-paying a student loan is absurd. Asking someone to make that choice is setting them up for a lifetime of failure.
Bernie Sanders is also a firm believer in the climate crisis, as are most millennials. In fact, in a recent tweet, Sanders referred to President Trump as an “idiot” for believing that climate change is a hoax. Like Sanders, many millennials believe that climate change is anything but a hoax. In fact, they believe that the wealth of previous generations was accumulated at the cost of the environment. A Pew poll recently revealed that 65% of millennials believe that there is evidence for human-caused climate change, compared to 47% of boomers.
Millennials, like Sanders, recognize that time is not on his generation’s side to ameliorate the climate crisis. It’s on them. In fact, that’s one of the things that Bernie Sanders has been exceptional at, recognizing that the change comes from the bottom up.
Sanders consistency in his political beliefs is both a criticism and a strength. It’s also unparalleled. His critics will say that he’s been saying the same thing for years. It’s a fair criticism, because he has been.
It can best be said that his career in politics is centered around democratic socialism. Now, the word “socialism” breeds fear in America. But it’s important to distinguish what Sanders means by “democratic socialism.” While he does call for reform on Wall Street, his belief has more to do with tax-funded social benefits rather than social ownership of production.
To deny Sanders’ career-spanning political commitment to forming a system that helps all and its appeal to a generation that has seen their government become co-opted by capitalism and politicians repeatedly shifting beliefs, like a Harry Potter character shifts shapes, would be naive.
Sanders recognizes that millennials have profound fear about sky-rocketing health care costs and the feeling that they owe fealty to the banks and financial institutions, as a result of their student loans. Accordingly, Sanders wants to break those shackles by providing substantial student loan forgiveness and providing universal health care. And as a firm believer in the science, and reality, of climate change, these issues aren’t political points for Bernie Sanders. For him, these are critical to the future of America.
The reason that much is made of this baby boomer versus millennial tension is that in a US-type of democracy, the number of people in a group is a big part of its electoral power. But only if they vote. The uphill struggle that Sanders faces is not in getting millennials to believe in him, it’s getting them to vote.
Cynics will say that millennials are only looking for free handouts and won’t show up to vote. The former is just cynical scrum and the latter was true in 2016. Only half of the eligible millennials voted in 2016, compared to ⅔ of the older demographic. However, in 2016, it could be argued millennials didn’t vote because their candidate, Sanders, was sidelined by the Democratic party.
However, that changed in the mid-term elections of 2018, as millennials nearly doubled their voting from 22% to 42%.
Having a candidate stand up for ideas that they believe in and are committed to is a recent development in American politics. Having grown up in an era of war, corporate malfeasance, the rising cost of education and healthcare, it’s no surprise that Sanders appeals to younger voters.
Bernie Sanders’ appeal transcends generations. His unwavering commitment to make the necessary changes for the future, both individually and systemically, is what pulls younger voters into his orbit.