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The growing political influence of American millennials

The U.S. has more than 72 million millennials, adults who were born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s. This year, millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest generation of adults. And while they have in the past been less likely to participate in politics, these younger adults are increasingly asserting their influence. John Yang reports on the growing power of American millennials.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For years, baby boomers, those who are currently aged 56 to 74, have been the dominant voting bloc in the U.S.

    Well, that could soon change.

    John Yang reports on how millennials, voters in their mid-20s to late 30s, could play a big role in this year's election and beyond.

  • John Yang:

    With voting already under way across the county, political strategists are keeping an eye on voters like these.

  • Francisco Marquez:

    My name is Francisco Marquez.

  • Ally Henny:

    Ally Henny.

  • Melissa Munn:

    Melissa Munn.

  • John Yang:

    They're millennials, born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s. There are more than 72 million of them in America, and, this year, they became the nation's largest adult generation, surpassing baby boomers.

    Stella Rouse of the University of Maryland is author of "The Politics of Millennials."

  • Stella Rouse:

    In the next 10 years, given the size of that generation, we certainly see them displacing baby boomers, Generation X, which is a pretty small generation in comparison, and really being the generation that is at the forefront of influence in terms of political, social and economic factors.

  • John Yang:

    Research shows that millennials tend to be liberal and, unlike their predecessors, they aren't becoming more conservative as they get older.

    Political scientists say it's because, most of their lives, they have known economic insecurity.

  • Stella Rouse:

    And not only were they hit with the Great Recession on this side of entering the job market, but now they're dealing with the pandemic at the height of when they should be able to earn their biggest earning potential.

  • John Yang:

    Dionna Lopez was in her 20s during the 2008 financial collapse. She and her husband found only low-paying hourly wage jobs. So, she decided to go to college, but had to borrow to pay for it.

  • Dionna Lopez:

    Now we have this huge, massive debt, and we're not any further along than we were before.

  • John Yang:

    Now 38, she and her husband struggle to make ends meet for their family.

  • Dionna Lopez:

    I'm still in a huge amount of debt. My husband's still in debt. And now I'm supposed to put two teenagers through college? Like, how am I going to do that?

  • John Yang:

    Millennials have also seen climate change intensify natural disasters, like wildfires and hurricanes. And, as America's most diverse adult generation, they're more concerned than their elders about racial justice and LGBTQ rights.

    Ally Henny is 35 and lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

  • Ally Henny:

    Whenever I look and see my Black siblings, my brown siblings, my queer and disabled siblings sitting, and a lot of us just have a sense of existential dread.

  • John Yang:

    Like many millennials, she says the status quo is unacceptable.

  • Ally Henny:

    The system doesn't really seem to give a heck about anybody. So, why would we want to — why would we want to perpetuate a system that we never benefited from?

  • John Yang:

    The demographic shift toward millennials could be especially troubling for Republicans.

    They won the White House in 2016 on the strength of votes from white baby boomers. Before the pandemic, we spoke with consultant Rory Cooper, who was communications director for then House Republican leader Eric Cantor.

  • Rory Cooper:

    Look at the rhetoric from the president. It's the platform that says, to older generations, we're going to keep things the way they used to be.

    And that's very effective if you are running a base election and you think that you're going to be able to turn out older voters.

  • John Yang:

    But recent polls show Mr. Trump losing support among older voters this time around. And he's driving away some younger conservatives.

    Twenty-nine-year-old Melissa Munn of Eufaula, Alabama, has campaigned for Republicans in the past. This year, she plans to vote for both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Democratic incumbent Senator Doug Jones.

  • Melissa Munn:

    The Republican Party has just, like — like, just run far right, far faster than any of us really want to keep up with.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    Another common denominator for millennials? They tend to be skeptical of government and political parties. President Trump's outsider image appeals to 25-year-old Summer Tong.

  • Summer Tong:

    I just feel like there's a lot of corruption with just politicians that have made their whole career in politics.

    I just — I just don't trust them. I feel like Donald Trump is different because he's never been in politics.

  • Joel Payne:

    It's a shared experience with so many people who are my age range who have lost favor and lost faith in government and the ability of government remedies to be here to help.

  • John Yang:

    Political strategist Joel Payne, himself a millennial, worked for then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

  • Joel Payne:

    There are so many failures of government that I have lived through, 9/11, Katrina in 2005, the Wall Street collapse of 2008. You got a coronavirus, which we're living through right now.

    Those types of experiences have really created a lot of doubt in the lives of millennials about the power of government and about the power of governing.

  • John Yang:

    How do Democrats, or how to do parties in general, candidates in general overcome that?

  • Joel Payne:

    I think there are a number of ways to do that, demonstrating, every time that you accomplish something, what you have accomplished and what it means for people.

  • John Yang:

    In the past, millennials have not been reliable voters. This year, Dionna Lopez is still on the fence.

  • Dionna Lopez:

    I'm not going to vote for Trump, but I just feel like, if we keep voting for Democrats, when they're not giving us something to vote for, then what is going to motivate them to change?

  • John Yang:

    Twenty-six-year-old Francisco Marquez lives in Brooklyn.

  • Francisco Marquez:

    There's so much talk that happens with the Democrats that sounds good, and yet very little is done to accomplish it.

  • Woman:

    We are not waiting for justice!

  • John Yang:

    Distrustful of politicians and institutions, many millennials turn to grassroots movements, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, boycotts, and climate change protests.

  • Joel Payne:

    When you see people take to the streets for weeks on end, that's really a demonstration of: Hear me. Listen to me.

    It's a call out. It's a yelp for help. And I think what policy-makers and what those who are hoping to win office have to do is, they have to understand that, just because those folks are showing up, yes, they are engaged in the issues, but they're not engaged in the remedies that you might be presenting to these folks. They need to see more.

  • John Yang:

    But there are signs that millennials may be taking their activism from the streets to the ballot boxes. In 2018, their turnout was double what it was in the last midterm elections, helping Democrats recapture the House.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Washington.

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