Generation gap in the presidential race?

Democratic contenders defy stereotypes about age and point to cooperation across generations.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg shakes hands with former Vice President Joe Biden at the Democratic candidates debate in Miami June 27.

Generational divides in America – often marked by misconceptions – have perhaps never been sharper. Baby boomers, the popular narrative goes, think millennials are entitled. Millennials think boomers are selfish. Fingers point, stereotypes abound.

For young adults, college debts have almost tripled in the last decade while Social Security looks unsustainable. The post-2008 gig economy led some to label the last 10 years a stolen decade. Stolen, that is, by seniors.

For older folks, ageism seems on the rise – especially in firms with a strong youth culture. Boomers were once told not to trust anyone over 30. Now they’re meeting mistrust from young people.

Generations are admittedly loose identifiers. Aside from collective experiences of major events, such as Woodstock or 9/11, people share little in common just because of age. Even so, generations seem to matter in public perception. Books aimed at bridging generational divides in the workplace treat millennials like Martians. A survey from the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year found younger Americans do not believe that boomers, especially those in politics, “care about people like them.”

One need look no further than the presidential campaign to see that distrust in action – and yet also a counter to it.

Arrange the candidates by date of birth and you get a four-generation panorama from millennial Pete Buttigieg to the silent generation’s Bernie Sanders. Some say Mr. Buttigieg and his fellow under-40s are too green; others say septuagenarians like Mr. Sanders are too gray.

Ironically, though, the seeds of a solution might be rooted in such problematic politics. Despite evidence that voters prefer politicians of an age similar to their own, the Democratic campaign’s youngest and oldest candidates – Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders, separated by a record 40 years – enjoy large support across the generations. Running on ideas of “intergenerational equity,” which he says excites older folks the most, Mr. Buttigieg gets some of his best polling numbers from boomers. Similarly, Mr. Sanders receives support from young people – a Facebook page “Millennials for Bernie” has nearly 500,000 followers.

Their surprising bases of support signal refreshing intergenerational trust, and even more, a focus on ideas more than identity.

The generational plates are shifting. In the 2018 midterm elections, for the first time, Generation X or younger outvoted the boomers or older. Millennials are now the largest generation and the largest one in the workforce.

To navigate the coming years of change, intergenerational trust will be necessary. That trust requires fewer age-based stereotypes – which research shows are rarely based in reality – and more focus on relationships. The opportunities to build those relationships are already available. Recent data from the religious research organization Barna Group found that more than two-thirds of Americans have intergenerational friendships. In addition, young people are living at home longer than ever before – maintaining intergenerational relationships within families into early adulthood.

Bridging generational divides won’t be easy. But with mutual effort, cooperation is within reach. Pointed fingers can turn into open arms. 

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