Why Millennials Won’t Fix Washington Anytime Soon
If you’re like most Americans, you’re fed up with the gridlock, polarization, and dysfunction in Congress. But if you’re waiting for Millennials to fix Washington, you’re going to be holding your breath until Texas is as blue as the blue in the your face.
“Millennials have much to contribute, but it is not within their power to liberate the older generations from the responsibilities of national leadership.”
Our original research, based on historical averages of each generation’s rise to power, projects that Millennials will not even begin to gain significant influence in Congress until the late 2020s, at least fifteen years from now. For now, it’s up to the leaders of the Baby Boom Generation and Generation X to fix Congress and make Washington work again.
1) Millennial leaders in Congress will not begin to influence national political and policy debates until the late 2020s. Their generation’s politics and priorities will not be decisive in the House until the mid 2030s and in the Senate until the early 2040s.
2) Before the end of the decade, Boomers will take control of Senate leadership and Gen Xers will win their first majority in the House. These two developments will probably increase partisan conflict, ideological polarization, and political confrontation beyond their already historic levels — especially if Republican Gen Xers control the House.
3) The escalating Crisis of leadership and governance gripping Washington could last well into the 2020s. It may displace the Great Recession as the dominant contextual framework in national politics.
4) Generational theory suggests the major conflicts animating this Crisis will be resolved in the mid-to-late 2020s, before Millennial leaders in Congress become influential. Boomer and Gen X leadership will determine that nature and timing of that resolution, for better or for worse.
Generations in Congress
Our research into the history of Congress suggests that generational cohorts influence Congress mainly from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. As more and more members of a generation are elected to Congress, their influence grows in ways that reflect the generation’s archetypal character, psychological temperament, and political priorities. As a generation’s numbers in Congress recede, so does their influence – in ways that are qualitatively and quantifiably measurable. Indeed, shifts in generational power shares can be linked to noteworthy, and often transformative, political and institutional developments.
“The 104th Congress inaugurated the hyper-partisan, sharply confrontational, gridlocked politics that still grip Washington today.”
Probably the best illustration of generational influence is what happened when Baby Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) gained a majority in the House of Representatives. The year was 1995, and Republicans won control of the House for the first time in, well…generations. Newt Gingrich’s rise to power – propelled in no small part by a cohort of radical, ideologically driven conservative Boomer leaders and voters – transformed the tone in Washington.
Nearly twenty years later, it’s easy to see how the 104th Congress inaugurated the hyper-partisan, sharply confrontational, gridlocked politics that still grip Washington today. This style of politics will be with us as long as Boomers remain influential in the electorate and on Capitol Hill.
The 30-44-53 rule in the House
Generations follow a predictable life cycle when it comes to their power and influence in Congress. Using data from the American Leadership Database, courtesy of the generational experts at LifeCourse Associates, we’ve determined that in the U.S. House of Representatives, there are three key numbers worth remembering: 30, 44, and 53. (Contact us if you would like to see our data.)
In the post Civil War era, a new generation begins to arrive in the lower chamber around the time the eldest among them turn 30. This DOES NOT mean that a 30-year old will be elected to Congress. It means that when the oldest members of a generation turn 30, someone in their generation will be elected or appointed to serve in the House for the very first time.
In any given Congress, there are never fewer than two generations serving in office simultaneously – and potentially as many as five. When the oldest members of a rising generation reach age 44, that’s the year they typically become the second largest generation in the House, or what we call “the largest minority.” In a moment, we’ll explain why becoming the largest minority represents such a critical threshold in a generation’s political life cycle.
“When a new generation becomes the largest minority, their ‘young guns’ and ‘rising stars’ begin asserting themselves in ways that garner significant attention.”
A little less than a decade later, when the oldest members of a generation reach age 53, that generation typically wins their first majority (or in some cases a plurality) in the House. For each of these age figures – 30, 44, and 53 – there is a two-year margin of error, but these figures hold up with remarkable consistency over time. Since we’ve already been talking about the Boomers, let’s use them as an example to illustrate a typical generation’s rise to power.
Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe stipulated that the earliest Baby Boomers were born in 1943. The first Boomer was elected to the House of Representatives 28 years later in 1971 (two years earlier than the projected 30 and within the margin of error). At the 44-year mark in 1987, Boomers became the second largest generation in the House (exactly as predicted). And finally, they gained their first majority in the House in 1995, the year the oldest Boomers were turning 52 (one year earlier than the expected 53). This same basic pattern holds up for nearly every generation since the Civil War, with very few exceptions.
Arrival, minority, majority
The three political milestones marked by the 30-44-53 rule – arrival the House, largest minority status, and first majority – represent critical thresholds of rising generational influence in Congress. A new generation typically arrives in Congress a few years after they’re first noticed as a major influence in the national electorate. In these early years, the new generation has little meaningful influence. Their attempts to organize or to shape policy and strategy amount to little more than symbolic gestures, but their interests and priorities may foreshadow eventual shifts in the political landscape.
“Generations follow a predictable life cycle when it comes to their power and influence in Congress.”
When a new generation becomes the largest minority, their “young guns” and “rising stars” begin asserting themselves in ways that garner significant attention. While not yet decisive or determinative, their generation’s boldest policy initiatives and most disruptive political strategies begin to influence national debates and shape the conversation. At this stage, the most provocative leaders from the new generation become identified with potential new directions, ideologies, and possibilities for their party and the country.
When the rising generation finally becomes the majority, their preferences and priorities become decisive. Majority status is often accompanied by a significant shift in the tone and political dynamics of the legislative body. Members of the older generation come to be identified with the old guard, and members of the rising generation identified with the new guard. Legislative and political priorities change as powerful new figures assume leadership roles and responsibilities. New ways of doing things are instituted. The new generation’s agenda becomes the official agenda. For better and for worse, politics are never again the same.
The big X-ception
Generation X appears to be the big exception to the 30-44-53 rule for the post-Civil War House. Born from 1961 to 1981, Generation X first entered the House in 1993, consistent with established projections. However, they did not become the largest minority in the House until 2011, six years later than projected. We can debate the causes for this delay, and may do so at a later time. But what cannot be debated is that this represents a major aberration from the historical norm, a norm from which no generation has deviated (even slightly) for more than a century.
Established projections suggested Gen X would gain its first majority in the House in 2014, but we find this highly unlikely given their current power share (32%). More likely, Gex X will gain their first majority closer to the end of the decade. The main consequence of Gen X’s delayed rise to power is that it will extend the Baby Boomer majority in the House a few extra years beyond the historical norm.
At this time, we see no evidence that Millennials (born 1982 to 2004) will experience a similar delay in their rise to power – though we will be monitoring their power curve closely to watch for early signs of delay.
At least fifteen years
Born from 1982 through 2004, the very first Millennial joined the House of Representatives in 2013 (Rep. Patrick Murphy of FL-18), just one year later than their expected arrival in 2012. If past trends hold, Millennials will become the largest minority in the House around 2027, and win their first majority around 2035, give or take a couple of years.
This is to say nothing about generational life cycles in the Senate, an institution that is made up of significantly older members and which is far less majoritarian than the lower chamber. The magic numbers in the post-Civil War Senate are 38-49-58, however they come with a much wider four-year margin of error.
In other words, the first Millennial could be elected to the Senate as early as 2016 or as late as 2024. Millennials will become the largest minority in the Senate as early as 2027 or as late as 2035, and they will probably win their first majority in the Senate between 2036 and 2044. Whether they rise to power in the Senate early, late, or right on schedule, Millennials and Millennial politics will find expression in the House years before they have even glimmer of influence in the seniority-driven Senate.
“Millennials will become the largest minority in the House around 2027, and win their first majority around 2035, give or take a couple of years.”
Based on this data, we’ve concluded that Millennials won’t even begin to exert meaningful influence inside Congress until sometime in the late 2020s. The optimistic, progressive, and consensus-driven politics we’ve learned to expect from Millennials will eventually transform the way Congress works, but this transformation will not even enter it’s earliest stages for at least another fifteen years.
Let’s put this into perspective. Fifteen years ago, Congressional Republicans defied both public opinion and strategic common sense when they impeached a popular sitting President. Fifteen years later, they shut down the federal government and very nearly blew up the global economy in a pointless quest to deny Americans access to health care and indulge the Tea Party’s fantasies of revolution. What lies waiting for us fifteen years from now? If you think things in Washington can’t get any worse – as most people probably thought in the late 1990s – think again.
Boomers in the Senate, Xers in the House
There are two looming generational power shifts we can anticipate before the end of the decade that could shake things up in Washington. We’ve written about them extensively in a previous piece, Boom Goes the Government. Unfortunately, both of them are likely to change things for the worse.
First, Boomers will be taking control of the Senate. Right now, the Silent Generation still exerts significant influence through senior leadership posts and committee chairmanships. Boomers will replace many of these Silent-aged leaders before the end of the decade, bringing the Boomer penchant for partisan confrontation, ideological polarization, and incompetent management to the Senate.
Second, Gen Xers – who recently became the largest minority in the House – will gain their first majority in the House near the end of the decade. Democratic members of this generation tend to be pragmatic left-of-center types: certainly not everyone’s first choice, but well within the mainstream of American politics. But polls have consistently shown that the older cohort of Generation X are staunchly conservative and even more extreme than their Boomer elders, especially on the right side of the aisle.
To get a sense of Generation X’s temperament and politics, think of leaders like Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Eric Cantor, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz. Dyed-in-the-wool Republicans may react to this list with nervous excitement. But just about everyone else in America reacts with a mixture of derision and horror.
“When the rising generation finally becomes the majority, their preferences and priorities become decisive.”
If Republicans are still in control when Gen Xers win their first House majority, we may look back on the problems plaguing Washington today with fond memories. The obstruction, gridlock, and brinkmanship of recent years will look like the good old days. Given the likely Republican lock on the House through the end of the decade – thanks to gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban districts – we would urge our readers and clients to prepare for the worst.
Nearly two decades ago, the founders of modern generational theory predicted America would soon be entering its next Fourth Turning. A Fourth Turning, also known as a Crisis, is a protracted period of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s a time of intense economic, political, and eventually military conflict over fundamental values and core elements of the social contract. The threats and dangers faced by the nation are urgent and existential. If history unfolds in seasons, a Fourth Turning is history’s equivalent of winter.
No two Fourth Turnings are exactly alike, but they occur roughly every eighty years. America today is in its fourth such Crisis. The American Revolution was the first, the Civil War was the second, the Great Depression and World War II represented the third, and in 2008 our fourth Fourth Turning began.
Generational theory teaches that seasons of history are like seasons of the year: spring always follows winter – even if it’s a barren, silent spring. The Revolutionary War was followed by the Era of Good Feelings. The Civil War was followed by the Reconstruction and Gilded Age. The Great Depression and World War II eventually came to an end and gave way to the Great American High. In each case, the choices and decisions made during the Fourth Turning set the stage for the First Turning that followed.
“The Fourth Turning will already be over by the time Millennials begin to assume a meaningful leadership role in national politics.”
The current Fourth Turning will eventually end and give way to a period of consensus, prosperity, and rebuilding. But seasons of history last roughly 20 years, approximately the same length as a single generation. The current Crisis, which began with the Wall Street crash in the fall of 2008, could last well into the 2020s. Today, we are only a quarter – at best a third – of the way through the Fourth Turning. By the time it is over, it is likely that the Great Recession will be remembered as the opening act of a multi-act play.
The Fourth Turning is far from over – which is why we feel we are standing on very solid ground predicting that the situation in Washington will grow worse, far worse, before it starts to get better. Intense, dramatic political conflict is par-for-the-course during Fourth Turnings, and we expect that conflict to escalate. Our data shows that Millennials will not be in a position to diffuse, de-fuse, or resolve the conflicts in Washington until the late 2020s at the earliest. In other words, the Fourth Turning will already be over by the time Millennials begin to assume a meaningful leadership role in national politics.
Followers and leaders
During a Fourth Turning, civic generations like the Millennials today – and the like the Greatest Generation of the Depression and World War II era – play an important role in the resolution of the Crisis, but never as society’s leaders. That’s because Fourth Turnings occur while civic generations are entering young adulthood. In the modern world, we simply do not elevate twenty- and thirty- somethings to positions of national leadership, not matter how valuable their contributions might be.
“Like it or not, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are in charge for the duration of the Crisis…”
Civic generations like the Millennials face an entirely different task during Fourth Turnings, because they are at a much earlier stage in their life cycle when the Crisis arrives, deepens, and culminates. Their task is to fight as foot soldiers in the great battles of the day (metaphorical or literal), to follow the leadership of the elder generations, and to rebuild society from the ground up with a new egalitarian spirit. Our sense from reading public opinion polls and talking with young people is that most Millennials are ready and eager to do whatever it takes to fix America. But there is only so much they can do if the older generations refuse to lead and empower them, especially financially.
In much the same way, idealist (Boomers) and reactive (Gen X) generations are charged with the tasks of leadership and management during Fourth Turnings. It’s up to the generation entering elderhood, the Baby Boomers, to define and defend the values that a society must hold dear. And it’s up to the generation passing through midlife, Xers, to manage implementation of those values, triage the emergencies that inevitably they arise, and harness the talent and energy of the younger civic generation (Millennials) for the greatest possible good.
Like it or not, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are in charge for the duration of the Crisis – and for at least the next fifteen years. Their choices will determine whether the Fourth Turning ends well or ends badly for the nation. Their leadership is the only thing that can fix Congress and make Washington functional again. Millennials have much to contribute, but it is not within their power to liberate the older generations from the responsibilities of national leadership.