Gen Z, Aware of its Power, Wants to Have Impact on a Wide Range of Issues
Lead author: Ruby Belle Booth
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Sara Suzuki
The 2022 midterms were the first national election in which Gen Z made up the majority of the ages 18-29 electorate—the age group CIRCLE and others define as “young voters”—and 9% of all voters. In just a few years, Gen Z will make up all of that age group. Millennials, now ages 26-41, make up the remainder of the 18-29 year old cohort and they made up 26% of the electorate in 2022. While divisions by generations can be partially arbitrary groupings—and there are important differences among members of the same generation—they provide opportunities to consider the unique environments in which youth of different ages, at different times, become active in democracy.
For Gen Z, those political, social, and economic conditions have included a global pandemic, an epidemic of school shootings, and major political shifts. Using CIRCLE’s post-election youth survey, we can hone in on some of the views and experiences of the oldest members of Gen Z, including some differences between them and the youngest Millennials. (Throughout this analysis, we use Gen Z to refer only to youth ages 18-25 in our sample, and Millennial to refer to youth ages 26-29 in our sample.) We can also shine a light on some of the challenges to engaging the youngest eligible voters, who are new to elections and are often neglected by organizations and campaigns.
Among our major findings:
- Among Gen Z respondents in our poll who didn’t register to vote, about 1 in 7 said they didn’t know how or had trouble with the application
- Among youth who did not cast a ballot in 2022, Gen Zers were more likely than Millennials to say they didn’t have time, and less likely to say they thought it didn’t matter
- Millennials are more likely to prioritize economic concerns like inflation and housing costs; Gen Z is more focused than Millennials on racism and gun violence
- Family and school can be key sources of political information for Gen Z, as well as online media and social networks like YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok
Gen Zers Less Likely to Know How to Register, Have Time to Vote
For the majority of Gen Z, this may have been the first or second national election in which they were eligible to vote; for most it was their first midterm cycle. When young people are relatively new to elections they need more information and support; unfortunately they are often less likely to get it from campaigns and organizations that focus their outreach on past or likely voters.
Our data on youth who did not participate in the 2022 midterms reflect some of those challenges.
Among young people who said they did not register to vote, 16% of Gen Zers said it was either because they did not know how or had trouble with their application. That was slightly higher than the 10% of Millennials in our sample who cited either of those two issues.
Similarly, among youth who didn’t cast a ballot—whether or not they were registered—42% of Gen Z and 30% of Millennials said they forgot or were too busy. That suggests the youngest potential voters may not have been getting reminders, information about early voting options, or other support to overcome barriers to electoral participation.
Gen Z Cares About Elections, Wants to Have an Impact
Notably, despite some stereotypes about youth apathy, Gen Zers in our survey who didn’t vote were actually less likely to say that it was because it wasn’t important to them or they did not think their vote mattered. In fact, this proved to be one of the largest differences between the two generations: among youth who didn’t vote, 40% of Millennials and 28% of Gen Z said they didn’t think it mattered.
Both young Millennials and Gen Zers believe in the importance of elections and in their own power: they report, at similar rates, that they think voting is a way to have a say about the country’s future, and that young people have the ability to effect change. Gen Zers are especially aware that their vote is a tool for impact: after “it’s my responsibility,” wanting to shape the outcome was their most cited reason for casting a ballot in 2022.
Our survey also found that Gen Zers (60%) were less likely than Millennials (67%) to say that their political beliefs are somewhat or very important to their personal identity. Given Gen Z’s concern and focus on myriad issues affecting their peers and communities, that may not suggest disinterest, but a different generational lens that is less focused on personal identity and more focused on the tangible impact youth can have.
Beyond Inflation and Abortion: Gen Z Concerned about Climate, Guns, Racism
About 2 in 5 (39%) of Gen Z respondents ranked inflation and gas prices as one of their top three issues, followed by abortion (30%), jobs (26%), and climate change (23%). Both Gen Zers and Millennials in our survey cited the same top two issues: inflation and access to reproductive healthcare. However, there were some slight generational differences in the issues young people consider their main priorities. Millennials were more likely than Gen Zers to cite economic concerns like inflation/gas prices (46% vs. 39%) and housing costs (23% vs. 17%) among their top-three issue priorities.
On the other hand, Gen Zers, many of whom developed their political consciousness and aged into the electorate during years shaped by school shootings and movements for racial justice, were slightly more likely than Millennials to say that gun violence (21% vs. 16%) and racism (18% vs. 13%) were among their top three issues. However, Gen Z is not less attentive to economic concerns across the board: inflation still ranked first among Gen Z, and jobs that pay a living wage was their third highest priority, whereas Millennials ranked climate change third.
On other major issues that were central to the 2022 election cycle, like abortion, there was no major difference between Millennials and Gen Z.
Family First, but TikTok and Twitter Vital for Gen Z
Gen Zers’ political priorities, views, and attitudes may also be influenced by where they get information about issues and elections. As our research has consistently tracked, for all youth, family is the biggest source of information, though even more so for Gen Z (59% vs. 52% for Millennials) who are more likely to still be living at home. Likewise, Gen Zers, who are more likely to still be in school, were also much more likely to report that they got information about political issues from their teachers or classmates: 21% vs. 8% On the other hand, Millennials were more likely to say they heard about politics from their neighbors or coworkers.
Other differences point to the changing media and social media landscape that is critical to understand in order to effectively reach all young people. Millennials in our survey were more likely to say they got information about issues from Facebook. Members of Gen Z were more likely than Millennials to favor Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram as sources of information.
That said, reaching and fully engaging youth is about more than being on the right platform. It requires listening to their diverse concerns, speaking to the issues they care about, providing key information about where and how to vote, and building opportunities for them to develop and wield political power. As Gen Z becomes an even larger force in the electorate in 2024 and beyond, the work organizations and communities do now to grow them into lifelong voters is likely to shape elections and democracy for decades to come.
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.
About the Survey: The survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm Ipsos collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents and a sample of people recruited for this survey between November 9 and November 30, 2022. The study involved an online surveyed a total of 2,018 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29 in the United States. The margin of error is +/- 2.2 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data are for all 18- to 29-year-olds in our sample.