Young voters may be the largest cohort of the electorate, but their record of showing up to vote is spotty, and three-quarters describe themselves as not politically engaged
Landon Nordeman for TIME
By Paul Taylor
February 11, 2016

From the cheap seats on the upper floor of the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., Matt Boyle cast a disapproving eye at the parade of national and state dignitaries at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual fundraising dinner. “It’s a rigged system,” the 21-year-old said on Feb. 5. “Washington doesn’t have our best interests in mind. They constantly throw out white political noise to keep us entertained long enough to hide the fact that nothing’s ever changing.”

Last year Boyle dropped out of college for fear of taking on too much student debt. He now lives with his parents in Maine, where he makes “chump change” as a dishwasher. He is frustrated by his prospects, disillusioned about the future and ready to do something about it. As the New Hampshire primary approached, he crossed the state line for the day to join one of the oddest youth causes in modern political history, shoveling snow and handing out yard signs for a curmudgeonly 74-year-old democratic socialist named Bernie Sanders.

In so many ways, Boyle is the embodiment of the “political revolution” that Sanders has promised the country. “You want to win an election?” Sanders likes to say. “You rally young people who have given up on the political process.” But at the same time, he remains the outlier in his own generation. In the first two contests, Sanders won an overwhelming share of Democratic voters under 30–an astonishing 84% in Iowa and 83% in New Hampshire. But the Democratic youth turnout has yet to break out, matching in New Hampshire the same level of engagement as the 2008 campaign and falling below it in Iowa. While Sanders is singing the right tune, his promise of a 1960s-style revolution has run headlong into a more modern trend: 21st century apathy and cynicism.

The millennial generation, defined as adults ages 18 to 35, became the largest cohort in both the electorate and the workforce during the past year. They’re distinctive in many realms–racially diverse, socially liberal, digitally savvy, economically stressed. But as political actors, their role is now in question. If the election has presented older Americans with the question of what kinds of ancestors they wish to become, the question for the young is different. The political future is theirs for the shaping. But do they want to grab it?

THE KEY SWING VOTE

As much as has been written about the role of young voters in this cycle, millennials have just as often made a huge difference by not showing up. In the midterms of 2010 and 2014, for example, record-low turnouts of young voters helped GOP candidates run the tables, coast to coast. Count millennials as the key swing voters of 2016 and beyond–with the mystery being not so much whether they’ll swing from Democrat to Republican but from voting to abstaining. A recent poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that engagement in the political process has declined since 2011, with 78% of millennials describing themselves as not politically active. For them it is “an utterly ineffective way to solve problems,” says Jennifer Lawless, who with co-author Richard Fox surveyed millennials for their 2015 book, Running From Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics.

Millennials are more allergic to a party label than any other generation in memory. Though they have a consistent record of voting Democratic, a shade under half describe themselves as independents. As for the Republican candidates, most millennials view them as espousing policies from another century. “I’m certainly not optimistic that we’ll see more youth engagement this year,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics and an authority on the youth vote.

Even Boyle, who caught the political bug voting for Obama in 2012, has his concerns. “Young people get this idea in their head that their vote doesn’t matter and nothing ever is going to change,” he explained. “And then they don’t vote. And nothing ever changes because no one ever votes.”

ECONOMIC INDIGNITIES

Unlike their parents and grandparents, this is a downwardly mobile generation, with smaller incomes, less wealth, more debt, higher unemployment and fewer homes than their parents’ generation had at the same age. They, more than any other group of Americans, don’t expect Social Security to be there for them in old age. They’re the only cohort ever to start their adult lives with nearly $1 trillion in student debt and more than $18 trillion in unpaid government bills.

Throughout most of American history, the old were the poorest age group in the population. Today that unhappy distinction belongs to young adults and their children–the generations hardest hit by the harsh “new normal” of stagnant incomes, a shrinking middle class, cheap labor abroad, smart robots at home, rising inequality and stalled upward mobility.

Trends in household wealth illuminate these generational shifts. Back in 1983, the median household headed by someone 65 or older had eight times the wealth of the median household headed by someone under the age of 35. By 2013, that disparity had ballooned to 20 to 1, according to Federal Reserve Board data. Today’s old are better off than yesterday’s old, while today’s young are worse off than yesterday’s young.

No surprise, then, that millennials have been so slow to make it past most traditional milestones of adulthood. As of 2015, nearly 4 in 10 were still living with parents or other older relatives, up from a quarter of their counterparts who did so a generation ago. Millennials trail far behind yesterday’s young in the purchase of homes and cars. And they’re only about half as likely to be married as their parents and grandparents were at the same age.

These new patterns reflect changing lifestyles, technologies and cultural norms. But all are heavily tied to economics. When pollsters ask single millennials why they haven’t married, the most common response is that they can’t be–or find–a good provider. Their generation’s retreat from marriage has been greatest at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

This is a self-perpetuating syndrome. Marriage has always promoted prosperity, with its economies of scale, division of labor, creation of new units of production and incentives to save for the long term. Millennials who don’t marry risk passing on their economic hardships to their children, more than 40% of whom have been born to a single-parent household.

In the modern knowledge-based economy, in which well-off parents have become adept at passing along their advantages to their children, intergenerational mobility isn’t nearly as fluid as the rags-to-riches allegory of American success would have it. Today economists project that about half the lifetime earnings of the young will be predetermined by who their parents are. As income and wealth inequality have grown in recent decades, so too have the intergenerational echo effects of the birth lottery.

Public policy hasn’t caught up with these life-cycle shifts in economic well-being. The share of federal spending on programs that promote opportunity for future generations–education, infrastructure, basic research–has been declining for decades, while programs that provide economic security for older adults are on track to soon consume more than half the federal budget.

But even with those spending increases, Social Security and Medicare won’t be able to keep up with an aging population and rising life expectancy. Sometime in the 2030s, once everyone in the huge baby-boom generation has migrated from taxpayer to beneficiary, those programs will be able to pay future retirees only about 75% of promised benefits. Thus another potential economic indignity awaits: the dramatic decline in old-age poverty–one of the crowning achievements of 20th century social policy–stands in danger of reversing before millennials are able to collect their benefits.

WHEN CULTURE TRUMPS POLITICS

As a result, this generation is the most skeptical in half a century. Just 19% of millennials say most people can be trusted. Some of their guardedness springs from their racial identities (43% are nonwhite) and economic vulnerabilities. People who have been marginalized can feel particularly betrayed when their trust is misplaced. Some may be a by-product of their having been raised by protective helicopter parents in an age of global terrorists and digital bullies. And some no doubt flows from spending so much of their social lives online, where it turns out people are not always who they say they are.

But if millennials are distrustful, many also remain upbeat and aspirational. The Harvard millennial poll found that nearly half declared the American Dream to be dead. Nevertheless, millennials consistently outpace all older generations in the share who tell pollsters they expect their own financial futures, as well as that of the nation as a whole, to get better.

Much of this is the invincibility of youth, a trait as old as the ages. But some is peculiar to millennials, with their everybody-gets-a-trophy upbringings and their everybody-stars-in-their-own-selfie digital lives. They are a pre-Copernican generation; online, their social universe really does revolve around them. No other generation in history has ever been so technologically empowered, at so young an age, with so boundless a sense of wonder and possibility.

They are also a generation that, while on its back foot economically, has been in the vanguard of social change–witness America’s dramatic reversal, in the brief span of a decade, on the issue of same-sex marriage. At a time when gender roles, sexual identities, racial boundaries and family constellations are all in flux, it’s the old who often feel like strangers in their own country, while the young are setting most of the new cultural norms–albeit not fast enough for many young activists.

THE TALENT GAP

It’s no surprise that as an economic matter, the Sanders agenda of free tuition at public colleges and universities, a raise in the minimum wage, expanded Social Security benefits and a promise to rein in Wall Street has resonated. Sanders also brings something more. The young see in him an authenticity and integrity they have trouble finding elsewhere. “Young people are the first to call bullsh-t on something,” says Boyle. “There’s a feeling that politics and the government itself are bullsh-t. Bernie is not afraid to say what needs to be said. He’s honest and good about it.”

Where does all this leave the millennial vote in 2016? Wrapped in uncertainty. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton remains her party’s front runner despite a shaky February, including a double-digit loss in New Hampshire. She’s been careful not to alienate Sanders’ young supporters–“Even if they are not supporting me now, I support them”–because she knows how much she needs them in the fall, assuming she gets there.

As for the GOP, its strategists have been tracking the voting patterns of millennials with mounting alarm ever since they came onto the scene. Their party has gotten much better at bringing young leaders to the fore–exemplified by 40-something Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, not to mention Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. By contrast, the Democrats’ congressional leaders are both, like Sanders, in their mid-70s. Clinton is a mere child at 68.

But age is just a number, as they say. Millennials prize diversity and tolerance more fervently than their elders do. With the GOP waging yet another presidential contest in which so much candidate rhetoric is seen as demonizing minorities and immigrants, Republicans could be digging a deeper hole for themselves with the young.

Doubly so because the fastest-growing bloc of eligible millennial voters is U.S.-born Hispanics. More than 3 million have already turned or will turn 18 between the 2012 and 2016 elections, meaning that 44% of all eligible Hispanic voters this year will be millennials, a far higher share than for any other racial or ethnic group. In 2012, more than 70% of young Hispanics voted for Obama.

On the other hand, young Hispanics have historically steered clear of the voting booth. Just 38% voted in 2012, compared with 55% of black and 48% of white millennials, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. But, says María Teresa Kumar, CEO and president of Voto Latino, “Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric could bring a lot of Latinos out to the polls.”

Or not. Every presidential campaign brings with it a new batch of demographic variables. Obama’s departure from the stage could depress black turnout, for example. And the backlash of religious conservatives to the Obama years, so much in evidence in this year’s GOP primary fight, could be a factor in November as well.

Whatever happens with the millennial vote in 2016, one thing is clear. For America to prosper in an age of head-snapping demographic, economic and technological change, it needs to find new ways to provide more opportunities for today’s young. And it has to do so at a time when old and young don’t look, think or vote alike, which makes the politics all the more daunting.

–With reporting by TESSA BERENSON and SAM FRIZELL/MANCHESTER, N.H.

Taylor is the author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown (PublicAffairs)

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.

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