Paul Wesslund

Voting and demographics for breakfast

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Can Generation Z save the Boomers from themselves?

Primary voting day was two weeks away and my wife and I already felt behind. We had pretty strong ideas about a couple of the races, a couple others we needed to do more research. At one point we had a mayoral candidate’s sign in our front yard, but pulled it into the garage when we learned he might be less-than supportive of public schools—we’re public education people.

And then there’s all these judges on the ballot—court of appeals, circuit court, family court, district court. How do we sort this out?

We gathered endorsement lists from a variety of sources, all the while lamenting that the newspaper (which we still pull out of the delivery box every morning) no longer endorses candidates.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re of the Baby Boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964)—which will become more relevant as you read on.

A Tweet from Generation Z

On election day we headed out early. Kentucky now has limited early voting but we stuck with the state’s standard 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday polling hours—even though the tradition really seems more suited to another time and place, when dad would come home from work, settle into his easy chair and open up the evening newspaper.

There were no big crowds Tuesday morning, we did our civic duty, thanked the poll workers, pasted on our “I VOTED TODAY!” wristbands then headed for the reward we promised ourselves, going out to breakfast.

The cheery, pony-tailed, 20-something server brought our coffee quickly—everything we said and ordered was “awesome” and “perfect.” “How’s your morning?” she asked. “Great,” I chirped, “We’ve already voted.” “Oh,” she said, “What are we voting for today?”

My wife and I looked at each other and I’m certain we each heard the sound of a record needle skipping and scraping its way along a vinyl surface (yes I’m dating myself again.) One of us managed to stammer, “Uh, it’s primary election day.”

The day my one vote made the difference

Somehow I’ve always valued voting. I looked forward to casting my first ballot every bit as much as I looked forward to getting my driver’s license. When I worked in North Dakota I remember filling in the circle for a legislative candidate who won by a single vote. It’s my story of why one person matters.

An even bigger story has to do with freedom. I have a sense that every American cites freedom as a reason for their patriotism, but that there’s little agreement on what that really means. For me it’s the right to vote. Whatever your top-of-the-mind issue or cause is, it really doesn’t matter without that right, that ability, and performing the actual act.

A Tweet from Generation Z

At a dinner party of close friends a few years ago one said she wasn’t going to vote because she didn’t like either presidential candidate. I erupted. “You have to vote. I don’t even care who you vote for.” My more partisan friends’ eyes popped and their mouths fell open at my neutrality, but I continued, “Why do you think soldiers are fighting and dying for us in the Middle East? What are they protecting? The least you can do to honor them is to vote.” (She later told me she ended up voting for an independent candidate.)

So 2020 did my heart good, with the largest-ever increase in the number of voters between presidential elections—17 million more than in 2016. According to the U.S. Census, 67% of all citizens 18 and older reported voting, up 5% from four years earlier. That’s great, but to me, it’s just a start.

And now back to our breakfast server.

Demographers would classify her somewhere in the Millennial or Generation Z category, born between 1981 and 2012. And good for those young people. The Census credits 18-34 year-olds with the highest turnout increase of any group from 2016 to 2020—from 49% to 57% of them turning out two years ago.

The Boomers blew it

But even with that huge increase, they still lag behind the Boomers and even the GenXers. 35-64 year-olds showed up at a 69% rate and those 65 and older, 74%.

As our server left to put in our order of omelet and oatmeal, my wife and I agreed that younger people need to show up stronger, and we started brainstorming how we could help.

Because we need them. We Boomers blew it.

Last week I watched a PBS NewsHour interview with former presidential adviser David Gergen about his book, Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders are Made. Comparing Boomers with The Greatest Generation of WWI, he said, “as a whole, the generation has been a disappointment…crisis upon crisis, actions we haven’t taken.”

As a target of his criticism, it’s clear to me that Gergen nailed it. We’ve left our kids an unholy mess to clean up.

A Tweet from Generation Z

We hate on each other. We’re burning up the planet. We’re shooting each other in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, and shopping centers. We’re reviving laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual and gender identity. We’re gerrymandering people out of making their vote really count. We’re banning books. We’re banning discussions of our racial history. We’re crushing college grads under hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. We’re passing laws allowing legislatures to overrule and invalidate election results they don’t like. We’re killing cops to try to overthrow our democracy.

And we’re not doing anything to fix it.

These are all issues directly relevant to how younger people live and what they value. And all these issues are on the ballot this fall.

Across my Twitter feed I regularly see snippets from 18-30 year-olds that us Boomers better watch out, GenZ will be turning out in incredible numbers this fall to, as Gergen said in his PBS interview, “get back to being strong, like the WWII generation.”

I hope so.

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