Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He is supporting Bernie Sanders for president. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
The main lesson of the Democratic primaries is the growing generational divide in US politics, one that reflects the deep and disruptive shifts taking place in the US economy. Former Vice President Joe Biden has captured the votes of older Democrats; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders the votes of younger Democrats. Both Sanders and Biden outpace Trump in head-to-head polls, and in a recent poll, Biden leads Trump among voters of all ages, with the margin narrowing significantly among older voters.
It is vital to understand the generational divide both to address America’s glaring crises and to peer ahead to the future of American politics.
According to the exit polls from Michigan yesterday, Sanders trounced Biden among voters 18-29 by the lopsided margin 76-19, while Biden trounced Sanders among voters over 65 by the margin 71-20. Sanders captured the 30-44 year-olds by a smaller margin, 52-42, while Biden won the 45-64 year-olds by 62-26. With the voters 45 and older accounting for 62 percent of the turnout, Biden took Michigan overall, by the margin 53-36.
These extraordinary voting differences by age reflect ongoing disruptive changes in the American economy; the share of secure, well-paid jobs in the workforce is shrinking as a result of the digital revolution. A century ago, machines displaced agricultural workers. In recent decades, increasingly capable robots have replaced assembly-line workers.
Today, the e-commerce wave is displacing shopworkers, while automated data systems are replacing clerical and administrative work. Transport and warehousing employment will be the next to go. National income is shifting away from wages to capital, and notably to capital income that accrues to higher education, intellectual property and digital platforms.
This is a key reason why stock markets have soared while wages have stagnated during the past generation, and why stable work has been replaced by gig work. Capital owners have added to the ever-increasing inequality by using their political clout to amplify their market-based successes with political prizes as well: tax cuts on corporate and personal income, and the ready access to tax havens providing safety from stringent enforcement.
From the perspective of a young person, especially the roughly three out of every five young people who do not earn a bachelor’s degree, and the roughly 70% of graduates who will earn a Bachelor’s degree together with debt, today’s economy is deeply threatening. Jobs are precarious; paychecks are low and stagnant; and healthcare coverage is either crushingly expensive or simply unaffordable. And workers know that today’s low unemployment is cyclical and therefore evanescent, vulnerable to the coronavirus epidemic, trade wars, budget deficits, climate shocks, or a number of other factors that can easily turn the economy into recession.
Young people know that when the downturn arrives, there will be little social protection.
Moreover, they have little – if any – financial savings, and many have few prospects to buy a home. The formerly soaring stock market is something between an irrelevance and a provocation. Add to this the realistic fears of massive climate change combined with crippling public debts and higher future taxes to service them. It adds up to a perfect storm.
The situation for most older people is also very difficult, and while they often support Sanders in spirit, their voting behavior is different. Young voters want change – massive change – to put the economy and environment on the right course for future decades. Older voters are more likely to hunker down, hoping that the changes ahead can be delayed long enough so that they can keep their jobs, their healthcare coverage, and get through retirement years intact.
More younger voters want Medicare for All, while older voters already have Medicare. Younger voters are seeking new kinds of job security; older voters care more about Social Security. Younger voters want a safe environment in the future, while older voters are often more worried about their electricity bills today.
Even when older voters are just scraping by with meager incomes and small savings, they are attuned to their 401(k) balances and the stock market. In spirit, they too would like to take on Big Healthcare, Big Oil, and the bloated military; in practice they vote for limited change.
Bernie Sanders’ revolution has fallen short of its electoral aspirations not because of Sanders’ concepts – some of which is supported by voters in both parties – but because Sanders has faced the generational divide in voting behavior.
Of the many Democratic candidates, he alone has honestly focused on the deep economic changes we need in this country. However, he did not convince enough older voters to buy in to those deep changes with their votes. Of course, demography is not destiny: Bernie too has many older supporters, this author being among them.
Notably, in the exit poll of Michigan’s Democratic primary voters, only 7 percent of voters said the US economic system works well enough as is. Yet 48 percent said the US economy needs “minor changes,” while 43 percent believe in the need for a “complete overhaul.” Biden trounced Sanders among the first group, by 60 to 29 percent, while Sanders prevailed among the second group, 55 to 42 percent. Younger people much more strongly support the need for reform of the economic system.
Trump’s base is especially resistant to change. That is its defining nature. In the 2020 election, Trump will be defending the status quo, not the vote for change. My bet is that either Biden or Sanders will handily beat Trump, with Biden as the candidate for modest change, or Sanders as the braver and I believe more accurate candidate of the deep policy changes that we require.