Explainer: How Generational Bias Affects Youth Voting

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At the peak of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, tensions were high, social media was buzzing and everyone seemed to have a strong opinion about at least one of the candidates. Never before in recent history had the United States seen a time in which the people were so divided, and never before did the country have several communication platforms to discuss their opposing opinions. Personal biases have always played a role in politics, whether this be race, income, gender, etc., but a division that proved strong and lasting was one of age.

Source: Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center states, “Generational differences have long been a factor in U.S. politics. These divisions are now as wide as they have been in decades, with the potential to shape politics well into the future.” The associated graph to the left represents generational attitudes about the past four U.S. elected presidents, from the oldest living generation, the Silents, to the youngest, the Millennials (does not include data on ‘Gen Z’).

Looking at the most recent election, the study shows the approval rates between the oldest and youngest generations as the most extremely opposed to each other, younger voters disapproving strongly of Trump’s presidency. When it comes to opinions about America’s relative standing in the world, Millennials and Silents are also far apart, while Boomers and Gen Xers express similar views. “While fairly large shares in all generations say the U.S. is among the world’s greatest countries, Silents are the most likely to say the U.S. “stands above” all others (46% express this view), while Millennials are least likely to say this (18%),” says Pew.

The polarizing events of the 2016 election was a peak time for divisions between generations, and that can be seen through the above data. The notion of older generations exhibiting more conservative behavior, and younger generations skewing more liberal, is not a new phenomenon, but the data shows the 2016 election case as an extreme through the presidential approval rates.

Fast forward to today and the division is still very evident with the promise of two 2020 presidential candidates who will be seen as extreme on each side. In a study conducted by Benjamin ‘Parker’ Jones entitled “Are they Young, or are they Different? A Comparative Study of Voting Millennials and Baby Boomers,” he addresses the indisputable fact that younger people just are not voting.

“As the youngest generation that is capable of voting, they are showing up in abysmal numbers compared to their Baby Boomer counterparts. In the 2016 Presidential election, 46.1% of all registered Millennials voted, while 70.9% of registered Baby Boomers voted (File 2017),” Jones said.

Jones attributes today’s generational tensions to a lack of commonality. Baby Boomers and Millennials, in particular, have been and are in different places in life, having experienced different ways of living.

“One bias that comes to younger voters is that they’re young, they’re selfish, they don’t really have an idea of what’s best for a community and they support policies that inherently influence a very small amount of people,” said Jones. “That’s projected on them because of where they are in life, not because of any other type logical circumstance.”

This is not a new phenomenon, nor will this be the last occurrence of it. Generational tension has been around for as long as generations have, and it’s built on the structure of superiority in intelligence and experience. In a study conducted by the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, reported by Rosie Meek, entitled “Young People, Social Exclusion and Inter-Generational Tension in a Rural Somerset Town,” this attitude is discussed from the perspective of older generations to younger.

“Participants were asked to respond to the statement: ‘Adults in my community see young people as a problem.’ Seventy-seven percent of the young people sampled agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. Further analysis revealed a significant relationship between the age of the respondent and perceived negative attitudes from the community. As age of the participant increased, so did the perceived negativity,” according to Meek.

The consequences of this kind of attitude and these kinds of biases are becoming evident in our political culture, and they could be having an impact on election turnouts and results.

“I think when younger people feel dismissed, or disrespected, or ignored, or whatever the hostile responses are that they receive, they maybe cut themselves off,” Lowell Gustafson, Professor of Political Science, and Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Villanova University, said. “And if they’re condemned or criticized by older people, then they’re less apt to sit down and just listen and ask questions.”

An article from Youth Service America, entitled 4 Reasons Young People Don’t Vote… and What To Do About It,” said the number one declared reason for low youth voter turnout is a lack of encouragement from those in their family, which can have an adverse effect on their election engagement. The attitude displayed from older generations toward younger generations, politically and socially, promotes a sense of discouragement to learn and be a part of the conversation, thus possibly impacting voter turnout from the 18-24 age range, or election results as a whole.

In an attempt to put this phenomenon into perspective, I conducted a poll spread out onto three different social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The poll posed a simple yes or no question: “Have you ever felt pressured or forced to vote for one candidate over another because of influence from another generation?”

The poll ran for 24 hours, exclusively to those who were friends/followers of mine on the platforms. The results were as followed:

In total, 88 people participated in the polls, and from this data, it was calculated that 41 percent of the participating individuals had experienced influence in an election, 36 total while 52 rejected the notion. While this is clearly not the majority of participants, it can be argued that 41 percent, nearly half, is a steep percentage to be experiencing this bias.

Additionally, there are factors to be considered when analyzing the above data, such as the age range of my personal followers. For example, the participants from Facebook skewed much higher in age comparatively to the remaining two platforms, while Twitter, similarly, skewed much younger.

The effort to increase voter turnout in youth voters starts with education and encouragement; an understanding between generations.

“Sometimes we (older generations) forget that people that are younger than us are really smart, they deserve the same respect we ask from them,” Dr. Gustafson said. “Do not condemn when they ask follow up questions, help people understand. Some humility is necessary to understand what a younger person is saying, to appreciate it and realize that they are making good points.”

The 2020 election is looking as though tensions will stay on the rise, which is why it is the most important time to adopt generational understanding for the sake of youth voters. Mutual respect between generations could come from implementing practices that encourage listening and empathy. Time will tell if 2020 is a year of stepping out of our echo chambers and considering the commonalities between us, or more division and differences.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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