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Generation X
Generation Y
Generation Z

2012: An Election Of Generations

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you really can’t overlook the fact that the topic of generations has dominated much of the political campaign dialogue.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you really can’t overlook the fact that the topic of generations has dominated much of the political campaign dialogue.

I tuned into both the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention and lost count at how many times both parties referenced the significance of younger generations.

This isn’t all that surprising. Generations X (1965-1981) and Y (1982-1995) are key to the future success of each campaign—and each political party. A combined demographic of 120 million, by 2015 they will be the majority of the workforce, consumers and decision-makers.

Interesting enough, the party divide is becoming a generational divide. USA Today explored the gap in its article, Seniors for Romney, Millennials for Obama.

Time magazine referred to the changing American voter and generation gap as follows:

The 137 million voters registered to go to the polls this November will not look like the 131 million who voted for President in 2008. And they are vastly different from the 96 million who voted the year Bill Clinton was re-elected. The U.S. has been changed by circumstance, economics, demographics and the simple passage of time. We are a youth-obsessed country that has never been older.

According to Pew Research Center’s report, The Generation Gap and the 2012 Election, younger people have voted substantially more Democratic in each election since 2004, while older voters have cast more ballots for Republican candidates in each election since 2006.

In fact, the young-old voting gap is at its largest spread since the 1972 election—around 20 percent. Not since then has generation played such a significant role in voter preferences as it has in recent elections. In 1972, Nixon was able to split the young vote with McGovern, then crushed McGovern with the over age 30 vote.  

Nevertheless, the 2012 election presents a challenging climate that’s difficult for either political party to decipher with any accuracy.

Back in 2008, the big story was how and why today’s rising Millennial Generation (a.k.a. Generation Y) voted by a large and decisive margin for the Democrats.

However, Millennials are much less engaged in politics than they were at this stage in the 2008 campaign, which could hurt the Barack Obama campaign. Furthermore, Baby Boomers and Generation X voters, who are the most anxious about the uncertain economic times, are on the fence about a second term for Obama.

Without a doubt, the Republicans are hoping to win the favor of Generation X voters, who were born between 1965 and 1981. Not long after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, the Wisconsin congressman was hailed for his status as the first Generation X candidate on a presidential ticket.

The Washington Times’ Kerry Picket wrote, “Hopefully, the Wisconsin Republican can bring a new image as opposed to the ‘slacker’ and ‘skeptical’ images Generation X has been stamped with for too long.”

Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, stated: “Ryan, the first Generation-X candidate on any presidential ticket, wants to turn that outdated process upside down. … On this Saturday morning in Virginia, with Romney as a father, the ‘New Republican’ may have been born.”

Politically, Generation X represents the growing partisan gulf of the country at large. Those born on the early side of the generation came of age during the Reagan revolution and are more likely to be conservative, with a libertarian slant. Those who grew up later, in the Clinton years, tend to be liberal, though not nearly as idealistic as Clinton, a Baby Boomer president.

In general, they prefer a more pragmatic, realist approach to government. (Much like one of their favorite childhood characters, Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox on Family Ties.)

They are split as to whether they want larger or smaller government, but have a preference for individual choice on issues like education. And Xers tend to be liberal on social issues. They voted for Barack Obama 52 percent to McCain’s 46 percent in 2008, according to a Pew Research report.

However, their support of President Obama, especially where the economy is concerned, is slipping. Only 22 percent of Xers say his economic policies have made things better, and 37 percent say he’s made them worse.

Additionally, they have been reluctant to get involved in government. We currently have the oldest Congress in history, almost entirely comprised of Baby Boomers and Silents.

So it’s not surprising GOP strategists are pushing the narrative of “Paul Ryan and the Gen-X GOP.” They are hoping the Generation X narrative will be good for the campaign and the political party, much like the Obama campaign tapped into the Generation Y values of hope and change—and cool branding—in 2008.

The 2012 election will hinge on the collective choices of five generations of voters, but both parties will agree it’s always great to have the young on your side. After all, youth represent the future and are quickly becoming the majority.

In the decades to come, if the Millennials stay their political course, they would confer a huge advantage to the Democratic Party. But in the next election, Generation X will be the wild card, and Xers and Ys they may well be outworked by the larger, more energized generations of Boomers and Silents.

Indeed, the young can sometimes lose elections. It happened in 1972, when the Boomer youth who voted for McGovern were overwhelmed by all the midlife and senior voters (the G.I. and Lost Generations) who favored Nixon.

Two years later, of course, Nixon resigned. The age gap closed almost entirely by the next election and pretty much stayed closed all the way until 2008.

As if to close the circle, many of the Millennials who now favor Obama are children of the same young Boomer Democrats who once voted for McGovern.

That’s what makes elections so fascinating—their power to surprise and to reveal, both who are today and who we will become tomorrow.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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