Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

The Rise of Young Independents - 2022 08 30 09 47 53

Millennials are more likely to identify as political independents as they age. Conversely, the Silent and Boom Generations are more likely to identify with one of the two major political parties. (Gallup)

NH: One of the oddest mysteries of American politics over the postwar era is this: The share of all voters who identify with the two major parties has steadily fallen, even while the intensity of political partisanship has risen.

Back in the 1950s, only about 20% of voters did not identify as Democrat or Republican; today, nearly 40% do not. Yet partisan intensity, especially over the last two decades, has heated up to unprecedented levels. (See "The Divided States of America.") Apparently, people feel more strongly about voting for or against parties that they identify less with.

Odd, isn't it?

In order to decipher this mystery, we first need to clear up a common misunderstanding. People often assume that "independents" are voters who are wishy-washy moderates or who have no strong feelings about who wins or loses the election.

This assumption is wrong. Roughly 4 out of 5 independents definitely favor one party or the other (pollsters often say they "lean" Dem or GOP), and the intensity of their "lean" is typically no less than that of party members. As for the other 1 in 5, sure, they don't care very much, and as a result they're much less likely to vote. They don't figure much in electoral outcomes.

So why don't the committed independents belong to a party? The reason is that, while they do have strong political convictions, they don't feel that either of the two parties comes close to fulfilling them.

Often, their convictions are more extreme (to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans) than the parties or are simply very different than the parties' agendas.

This trend started in the last 1960s and '70s, when many young liberal ("SDS") Boomers decided that the Democratic Party of LBJ and Hubert Humphrey was too conservative for them; and many young conservative ("YAF") Boomers decided that the Republican Party of Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford was too liberal for them. The lefty Boomers opted for the likes of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern, and failed. The righty Boomers put all their chips on Ronald Reagan, and won. 

By the 1980s and '90s, coming-of-age Xer voters were even choosier about the parties they identified with. And by the 2000s and after, coming-of-age Millennials were even choosier still. What's interesting is that this initial cohort effect perseveres over time. That is, generations that are party-identifiers young tend to remain so as they get older.

Here is Gallup's summary of independent voter shares, by generation, since 1992.

The Rise of Young Independents - August29 1

In 1992, the Silent (who were first-time voters in the 1950s) had the smallest share of independents (35%). Boomers were higher (at 40%). And Xers highest (at 44%). In 2002, Millennials came on stage with yet a higher share than the others. This same ranking never changes, election after election. That's the cohort effect.

In fact, the independent vote shares are spreading out. Why? Well, all we can say for certain is that, earlier in the postwar era, party identification had a strong positive lifecycle component: The older you get, the most you identify with a party.

The usual story is this: After several elections of passing out leaflets and ringing doorbells for the same party, you figure you may as well join the party you seem to be working for. That explains the slow decline in Silent and Boomer independents over time. But this lifecycle effect is weakening for later-born generations. The independent share of Xers isn't falling with age. And it's actually rising for Millennials with age.

Due to this weakening lifecycle effect, younger voters account for an ever-larger share of all independents. Take a look.

 The Rise of Young Independents - August29 2

Amazingly, slightly over half of Millennials (and "Gen-Zers") do not identify with either political party. That's compared to barely a quarter of the Silent.

The swelling numbers of younger independents is a sort of good news-bad news story.

Let's start with the bad news. If we ask why such a large share of younger voters (Millennials, especially) remain independent, surveys point to a very clear reason: These voters are more alarmed by the challenges facing America and are less impressed by the quality of leadership in the two major parties are offering.

They are, to be specific, less optimistic about America's long-term economic future. A larger share think a civil war is likely. They are less likely to believe "it is essential to live in a democracy." (See "Global Millennials: Down on Democracy and Drawn to Populism.") 

A larger share would be willing to opt for "more powerful leaders" with "less involvement from other branches of government." They are much more likely to say that America's system of government needs to be "completely replaced" or "needs major reform." Or that America's political system is "too divided politically to solve its problems."

Bottom line: America's challenges are dire, and neither major party comes close to meeting them.

So what's the good news? It's this. Despite their frustration with the status quo, Millennials are still turning out to vote. In fact, while all age groups showed rising voting rates in 2016 and 2020, the under-30 rose by the most. (See "College Students Turned Up to Vote in 2020.")

Most may not belong to either party. But understand the importance of election outcomes and are determined to make a difference.

What's more, this growing sea of young independents offers an opportunity to both parties at a time when their party leadership is up for grabs. Nothing prevents either party from attracting a lot more of these voters if they shift their brand and their platform in an attractive direction. And this should wake the parties up.

Focusing more attention on older voters won't get you much at the margin except maybe a bit higher turnout; most are already claimed by one side or the other. Focusing more attention on younger voters, on the other hand, could get you a lot--especially if you focus on the biggest long-term challenges the country is facing.

To view and search all NewsWires, reports, videos, and podcasts, visit Demography World.
For help making full use of our archives, see this short tutorial.

*  *  *


Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.