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November 13, 2012 / W. Stanton Smith

Gen y & the 2012 Election: Permanently in the Progressive Camp or Just Passing Through

Those voters 30 years old and under (aka gen y, born 1981-1995 approximately) broke for Obama by a wide margin. When combined with higher than expected turnouts and huge margins from African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and women (especially single women), this bloc of voters becomes a formidable force in any election. This has led some commentators to talk about a more or less permanent majority for perceived “progressive” candidates especially in future Presidential elections.

Others believe that the passage of time will take care of the currently progressive political leanings of gen y. In other words living life will make them more conservative. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News expressed this view on election night. The inference is that gen y is just going through a stage of life and that the majority of gen y will naturally adopt traditional conservative values in due course of just breathing long enough.

There is a certain level of truth in the assertion that we all become more cautious, if not conservative, in some areas of life as we age. In addition this expectation of increased conservatism as we age provides much comfort to those who don’t like the changes occurring in the demographic, political and social philosophy of contemporary society in general. But how much comfort should they take in the old bromide that older adults have offered to young people forever it seems: “When you have responsibilities (kids, a mortgage), your views will change and you’ll be less sympathetic with those who want “stuff” from the government at your expense…you’ll see that free enterprise works….giving not taking, that’s the way.”?

Is there research on point or at least some reasonably objective data that can answer the question above? I believe there are inferences to be drawn even if there is not research that is right on point. For just under a decade, beginning in 2001, I led a research effort in a major professional services firm looking at gen y. Our objective was to assess what they were looking for in a career, in an employer and in their personal lives and make changes as necessary to continue being successful in the talent marketplace.

Upon analyzing the research data, one of the biggest surprises was gen y’s deep mistrust of business aims. Further how these young people envision business being run ideally is entirely different from the way most business people believe business must be run to be commercially successful.

Here are two examples:

  1. Nearly 70% agreed with the statement “business is always talking about how they care about people-their employees, customers and communities-but they would put money and profits in front of all these if it came down to it”. Only 41 % believed that “business usually considers the non-financial, i.e., people, impact of their decisions.”
  2. When asked how they would prioritize business focus on customers, people, financial and community, they said that the top priority should be customers followed by people and financial in a tie for second place and the community a distant last place.  When asked what the reality is, they said the financial considerations were alone in first place by streets ahead of customers in a distant second place, people even further back in third place and community safely in last place.

What does this have to do with voting for progressive candidates? Plenty…based on extensive discussions with gen y’s and delving into the research, I can make the following inference: the two points shown above taken together with a gen y sensitivity to being taken advantage of and/or talked down to plus gen y’s predilection to being inclusive of different life styles and viewpoints, leads me to believe that at significant number of gen y will retain their skepticism toward the way business is conducted. This skepticism will extend to the political philosophy that goes with free enterprise capitalism as currently practiced and the candidates who stand for the traditional ways of doing business and politics.  Not all gen y will maintain this skepticism for sure but enough will retain this “progressive” viewpoint to make prudent politicians examine their assumptions about gen y. So gen y attitudes may morph towards conservatism to an extent but overall I see the preponderance of views staying in the progressive side of the house.

Put another way, Democrats should not take the gen y vote for granted as disaffection may manifest in simply not voting or general non-participation in politics. Republicans on the other hand need to find a less strident voice on controversial social issues and drop the condescending verbiage about those who don’t agree with them. If Republicans are really serious about courting the gen y vote, they need to engage in more patient explanation of why conservative views should be attractive to gen y. As it currently stands it is not at all obvious to a majority of gen y voters why they should be interested in the current type of conservative philosophy being espoused by the GOP.

Note: an extensive discussion of gen y attitudes towards business et al is available in my book Decoding Generational Differences: Changing your mindset…Without losing your mind. The book is available through

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