02/12/2008 12:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not Race or Gender, It's a Generational Conflict

There is more than a race for president going on at this moment. There is a generational conflict happening, and the breaking point seems to be split by women who are 40 years old.

Out of eight years of President Bush have emerged two formidable candidates in Senators Clinton and Obama. Democratic voters, and independents, are struggling as they decide between the two, the subtext being the awareness that in casting their ballot, they have to make a choice about these two individuals, knowing they will be voting for either the first African American or female presidential nominee. No small choice, with no small implications.

Senator Clinton does particularly with female voters in their forties and above. Senator Obama does better with women under 40. Male voters follow a similar but less exaggerated pattern. Why is that? Generation X is the breaking point.

Voters, especially women who are over 40, have seen more. The oldest people in Generation X were born in 1967. There a few key things that separate them from the under-40 crowd. First of all, those who went to college graduated during the recession of 1989. Those who looked for jobs in their early twenties found a limited job pool, and had to stoop lower for their starter jobs than their younger generational peers. This may effect how females 40 and up feel about how complete the women's movement was. Having trouble finding your first job is not something you easily forget.

Also not easily forgotten are the gas lines during the Carter administration, being reared by boomer parents, and the images throughout the 1980s of Ronald Reagan and the ending of the Cold War. All this informs the consciousness and perception of the 40-year-old "split voters" who play a huge role in determining the outcome of the democratic presidential race.

The rest of Generation X has had an entirely different life experience, which in turn informs their world view. They have never looked for work during a recession or major economic downturn (till, possibly, now.) Instead of watching Reagan and the Cold War, they came to political awareness during the Clinton years and the boom times of the 1990s. That might make you think they'd vote for Clinton, but not so. Remember, their parents, the boomers, are already doing that. These Gen-Xers want change. They feel economically secure enough to exert their political power. They have been brought to their feet by a 46-year-old they can relate to in Senator Obama.

Mike Dupre, a senior research fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics says, "in looking at the social dynamics of this election, with the notion of gender and race, there are some scientists that approach it in terms of cohort analysis because what historical era you were born and raised in, those events have an impact on your world view. Even one year year can make a difference."

Obama may be a boomer, but what he really is is an "echo-boomer," the tail end of the boomers and only six years older than the oldest Gen Xers. Senator Clinton is a boomer of an earlier time, and her followers include boomers and those born during the "forgotten generation," those born between 1940 and 1945, and the Greatest Generation, those born before 1940. Many of these women are the same people who brought Reagan to victory. They had been through the depression, or raised by parents of the depression, and lived through the war. Their outlook is informed by the sacrifices they made and learning how to get by.

There is still another generation at play in this Clinton-Obama race. Its the next new generation, which I call Generation 9/11. These are the college students I educate, and the recent graduates who got their first jobs with relative ease. Their world view is informed by the single most dramatic historical experience they were aware of: 9/11. They have lived during a time of economic strength since birth, and don't remember life without cellphones and the internet. These are the young people who have come out for Obama, who are newly activated voters. They are young and hopeful, and they are the ones to watch. They seem to want their turn to "roll the dice."