May 16, 2016

Millennials match Baby Boomers as largest generation in U.S. electorate, but will they vote?

Millennials, who already have surpassed Baby Boomers as the United States’ largest living generation, now have caught up to the Boomers when it comes to their share of the American electorate.

FT_16.05.13_eligibleMillennialVotersAs of April 2016, an estimated 69.2 million Millennials (adults ages 18-35 in 2016) were voting-age U.S. citizens – a number almost equal to the 69.7 million Baby Boomers (ages 52-70) in the nation’s electorate, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Both generations comprise roughly 31% of the voting-eligible population.

Last month, Generation X (ages 36-51) and members of the Silent and Greatest generations (ages 71 and older) comprised about 25% and 12% of the electorate, respectively.

The Baby Boomer voting-eligible population peaked in size at 72.9 million around 2004.  Since the Boomer electorate is declining in size, it is only a matter of time before Millennials are the largest generation in the electorate. 

While the growth in the number of Millennials who are eligible to vote underscores the potential electoral clout of today’s young adults, Millennials remain far from the largest generational bloc of actual voters. It is one thing to be eligible to vote and another entirely to cast a ballot.

FT_16.05.13_millennialVoters_turnoutMeasuring voter turnout is not an exact science. The Census Bureau’s November voting supplements are a standard data source for illuminating the demographics of voting. Census estimates of voter turnout are based on respondent self-reports of whether they voted in the recent election.

Based on these estimates, Millennials have punched below their electoral weight in recent presidential elections. For a host of reasons, young adults are less likely to vote than their older counterparts, and Millennials are no exception.

In the context of their turnout history, the high-water mark for Millennials was the 2008 election, when 50% of eligible Millennials voted. By comparison, 61% of the Generation X electorate reported voting that year, as did even larger percentages of older eligible voters. In 2008 Millennials comprised 18% of the electorate, but as a result of their relatively low turnout they were only 14% of those who said they actually voted.

FT_16.05.13_generationsDefined_2016Millennial turnout was less impressive in 2012, when 46% of eligible Millennials said they had voted. Since the oldest Millennials were 31 years of age in 2012 (as opposed to 27 in 2008), the expectation might have been that turnout would have edged higher. After all, an older, more mature, more “settled” age group presumably should turn out at higher rates. This underscores the fact that young-adult turnout depends on factors besides demographics: the candidates, the success of voter mobilization efforts, as well as satisfaction with the economy and direction of the country.

To assess how much Millennial turnout might have to increase in order for Millennials to constitute about 31% of actual voters in November 2016, consider a low bar: the 1996 election. It was a low-turnout affair, with only 58% of all eligible voters saying they voted. In a low-turnout environment, 58% of eligible Millennials would need to vote in order for their voting clout to match their share of the electorate.

While it might be a “slam-dunk” that Millennials soon will be the largest generation in the electorate, it will likely be a much longer time before they are the largest bloc of voters.

Topics: Generations and Age, Voter Participation, Voter Demographics, Millennials, 2016 Election

  1. Photo of Richard Fry

    is a senior researcher focusing on economics and education at Pew Research Center.