The midterm elections are mere weeks away, which means that while the candidates make their final pitches to the country, another set of America’s best and brightest are hard at work attempting to gauge how millions of voters will cast their ballots, with varying reliability that still occasionally sends the rest of us into a tailspin panic.
To keep things interesting, pollsters break down voting blocs by age, correlating the year Americans were born with how they may vote. Politico took this approach by recently declaring “Generation X is safely Republican.” A New York Times Siena poll, which you should be a little skeptical of for other reasons, suggested something similar: 59 percent of those ages 45 to 64 indicated they’d vote for the Republican candidate when asked which party they would vote with if this year’s election for Congress were held today.
One clarification: Xers are currently between the ages of 42 and 57, and the New York Times poll uses two age cohorts: 30–44 and 45–64. So it’s not exactly a perfect representation of Gen X (the 30 to 44 age group is leaning toward Dems).
But nonetheless, this poll in particular spurred people to ask, What is up with Gen X’s politics? The answer to that is complicated, and also has plenty to do with what, exactly, a generation even is. A few years ago, David Costanza, an organizational sciences professor at George Washington University, wrote a piece for Slate that argued that generations are not nearly as much of a “thing” as most people think, and his framing is instructive as we look into what the deal is with Gen X:
The Gen X cohort, born between 1965 and 1980, certainly did experience one specific set of significant events that could have defined their politics: They grew into adulthood while Republicans held the White House for 12 years, as Politico points out.* They also became the first generation to grow up with personal computers while also experiencing shaky economic times as children and young adults in the 1980s and ’90s.
But it’s not just about what they’ve lived through—it’s also about what they’re approaching. Retirement is an area of concern for Gen X, with the demographic expected to retire in the early and mid-2030s. It’s something they are seriously concerned about, as showcased in a study from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies that found only 22 percent of Gen X were “very” confident they would be able to fully retire with a comfortable lifestyle and 78 percent said they were concerned Social Security would not be there for them when they did decide to retire. This could explain the rightward bend.
But a closer look doesn’t paint such a simple red picture for Xers. A Gallup poll conducted from January to July 2022 found that 30 percent of Gen X identified as Republican while 44 percent were independent—the highest proportion of independent voters in any generational block. And Gen X doesn’t actually seem to be aging into conservatism either; in fact, it’s the opposite: In 1992, Gallup found that adult members of Gen X were even more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats, 32 percent to 24 percent. So really, Gen Xers have swung a little more toward the Democratic party over time (now 27 percent identify as Dems).
Currently, the oldest Gen Xers are 57 years old, and along with every other generation, they likely formed their partisan presidential voting patterns when they were around the ages of 14 to 24, according to a 2014 working paper by Columbia University’s Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman. They attempted to debunk the idea that as people age they inevitably become more conservative by arguing that most people’s political orientations in early adulthood carry over at least until late middle age. The theory wasn’t assigned to a specific political ideology, but instead whatever political views people developed through adulthood tend to stick throughout life, whether it’s Democratic-leaning or Republican.
When it came to Politico’s assertion on Gen X, Gelman felt it was a bit deterministic. He emphasized that voting behaviors should be viewed in terms of averages, not applied to each individual. In new research expanding on his 2014 analysis, Gelman noted the irony of Gen X being dubbed the generation of Reagan Conservatives given that the 1960s liberals hit their pro-Democratic high point by 1968, and then veered right. In fact, Gen Xers’ political socialization began with Democratic president Jimmy Carter, who started off popular but lost steam due to stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, and other adverse events. In 1981, the country ended up electing a Republican replacement, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan captivated the country and was reelected for a second term in a landslide, followed by Bush I. By the time Bill Clinton landed in the White House, Reagan Conservatives were roughly 30 years old, well past the peak of political socialization.
In other words, Gen X isn’t a political novelty, it’s a cohort that came into adulthood when Republicans dominated the White House, and that likely influenced their voting patterns as they aged. Like Gelman’s research found, white voters born in 1952 and socialized during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were 5–10 percentage points more likely to support Democratic presidential candidates than those born in 1968 who went on to become Reagan Conservatives.
Another factor to consider is race. About 61 percent of Gen X is white. While only 12 percent are Black, Black Americans much more consistently voted Democrat—age weights and partisan shocks have difficulty changing their voting patterns. Hispanic Americans, who make up about 18 percent of Gen X, also hold distinct views, which might be explained by the fact that many of them didn’t experience peak political socialization while living in the U.S.
Other experts in the business of extrapolating voters’ habits, like Ben Lazarus, director of research solutions at TargetSmart, have their doubts that making claims about voters based on their generation is all that useful. He feels it doesn’t take into account actual human behavior and how demography works. People in Gen X, like any generation, have layered and nuanced lives, all of which likely influences their politics at least as much as when they were born. Other factors include whether they live in a suburb or a big city, who’s in their peer group, or if they consider themselves secular or regular churchgoers.
Lazarus issued a warning: “America’s very diverse, and to try and apply one set of assumptions about any big group of people, it starts to get really dicey, really fast.” So, what’s up with Gen X’s politics? Probably just the same kinds of things that are up with everyone else’s.