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Ahead of the 2018 Midterms, A New Generation Finds its Political Voice

Young people increasingly believe that they have the ability to work together to effect social and political change.

Much has been written about “Millennial” participation in politics, but the youngest eligible voters in the 2018 midterms belong to the post-Millennial generation, sometimes called Generation Z. These young people, born after the mid-90s, grew up with the Internet, smartphones, and social media while watching news of school shootings and having active-shooter drills in their own classrooms. They also grew up watching, and sometimes joining, movements for more equality, fairness, and safety for all.  The post-Parkland movement against gun violence stands out as one led by this generation and explicitly focused on voting as a way to achieve change. There are early indications that Gen-Zs are politically engaged: recent studies find that youth voter registration figures have increased dramatically, and this year’s National Voter Registration Day was more successful than ever.   

Our poll of young people, ages 18-24, seems to confirm this trend, and finds that Gen-Zs see themselves as part of a rising political force, poised to have a dramatic impact on our democracy. Four out of five young people (81%) say that, as a group, they have the power to change things in this country, and 58.5% say they personally know people who are making positive change in their community. More than half of young people (54.8%) say that they believe this election’s outcome will have an impact on everyday issues.. As usual, there are major differences by race and, especially, by gender: for example, just over a third (37%) of young white men say they are part of a movement that will vote to express and advance its views, while 60% of young Latinas say the same.

New to Voting but Already Political: A Generation Fired up for Change

Young people report feeling that they can bring about positive change if they work together, and that sentiment is stronger this year than after the 2016 election, when many youth expressed doubts about American democracy. Compared to youth in our 2016 post-election survey, young people now are more likely to believe that “dramatic change could occur” in this country if people band together and demand change (72.3% in 2018, 66.8% in 2016). More youth also say that they can work together to promote important political goals even if they face difficulties: 72.6% now, compared to 64% in 2016. While young people were never hopeless, with majorities of youth believing  in the power of collective action even after the 2016 election, the increases are notable given the polarizing political environment and developments in American politics over the past two years.

One reason for that renewed sense of optimism may be that young people see they are not alone, and our data suggest that they are beginning to see themselves as part of a rising, politically engaged generation.  A vast majority, 81%, believe that as a group, young people have the power to change things in this country, and two-thirds (66.8%) believe that “dramatic changes” are possible if people demand change. As we have noted in previous analyses, this energy and enthusiasm can be a crucial motivator of political engagement or be a result of opportunities to engage, but only if combined with concrete information about voting and tangible opportunities to participate.


Young people are seeing their friends become more political this year, and when they see friends taking action, they want in too. Well over half (61.1%) of youth are noticing an increase in the number of young people talking about social and political issues in their own community, and those messages are reaching them. Similarly, 58.5% say they personally know people who are making positive change in their community, 44.0% say other young people have reached out to them about political issues or elections, and almost half (46.4%) consider themselves to be part of a group that will vote to express their views.

These findings point to an emerging “community” of young people of various backgrounds coming together to make positive change, and defining themselves in opposition to older generations who they believe have failed them. A majority of our survey participants worry that older generations have not thought about young people’s future (55.4%), and have not done enough to secure their future (62.9%). That may be one reason why young people today feel that they cannot sit on the sidelines and watch older generations make decisions that affect their lives. That said, they recognize the need to collaborate: an overwhelming majority (88.5%) believe that all generations must work together to make positive change.

Cynical but Undeterred: Youth Skepticism about Politics Actually Drives Desire to Vote

While this generation of young people seems optimistic about achieving change, they remain skeptical about politics. However, on at least two measures, youth today are less likely than in 2016 to believe politicians are untrustworthy and accountable to voters like them. Just after the previous presidential election, about one in five youth (19.5%) disagreed that “it doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties.” Now, just over a third of youth (33.8%) disagree with that statement. Likewise, in 2016, just 6.8% of young people disagreed that “public officials don’t care much about what people like me think;” now, 18% disagree.

Despite that, a majority of youth (59.7%) say that they are feeling more cynical about politics than they were two years ago. But, instead of giving up on politics, this new generation of youth seems to be rolling up their sleeves in order to lead positive change. We find that young people who reported feeling more cynical are actually more likely to say they are voting than those who are not: 40% vs. 26%. Importantly, being cynical about politics is not preventing young people from recognizing its importance. More than half of youth in our poll (54.8%) agree that the outcome of the 2018 elections will have a direct impact on their everyday lives, only slightly lower than 60.0% in 2016, which is remarkable given that presidential elections are generally seen as much more consequential. Recognizing the election’s importance appears to be the strongest predictor of whether young people will go to the polls next month: 44.8% of those who agree say they are extremely likely to vote, while only 21.8%  of those who did not agree are extremely likely to vote said so.

These findings paint a complex picture of young people, who are often described as disaffected or apathetic when it comes to voting and political engagement. Their cynicism is mixed with determination: they understand the challenges of changing systems they may perceive as broken, but they believe that together they have the power to change the course of the nation.


Young Women Lead the Way: Differences in Optimism and Engagement

Young people are not a monolith, and among all youth there are stark differences by race and gender in their opinions about politics, their belief in their generation’s ability to create change, and their intention to act on that belief at the ballot box and beyond. These differences by gender, and by race and ethnicity, may be due both to people of different backgrounds varied experiences with the political system, as well as recent political events and controversies.

Young women in our poll report more civic and political energy, individually and in their peer groups and communities. Half (50.2%) of young women see themselves as part of a group or movement that will vote to express its views, compared to 42.6% of young men.About two-thirds (66.8%) of young women say they see more young people in their communities talking about social and political issues this year, compared to just over half (55.4%) of young men a. Likewise, 58.7% of women and 51% of men believe that the outcomes of the 2018 elections will make a significant impact on everyday issues.

In addition to these gender differences, there are variations by race and ethnicity. For instance, just 37.2% of white men see themselves as part of a group that seeks to advance a political view while 59.5% of young Latinas, 54% of black men, and 46% of white women  say the same. Black and Latino youth were more likely than white youth to say they belong to a group or movement that would vote to express its views. On the other hand, some forms of political cynicism are more prevalent among youth of color: 42.8% of young Latino men and 42.4% of Black women believe that it does not matter whom they vote for compared to just 27.4% among White women.

Young Latinos, in particular, present an interesting case. They have historically voted at lower rates than their white and black peers, and our poll shows they are more likely to express doubts that public officials care about people like them, and more likely to say that “it doesn’t really matter whom you vote for because the rich control both parties.” At the same time, young Latinos are the most likely to report an increase in political activities among their peers, and in personally receiving outreach from other youth. They may have been moved to political action by incidents of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border throughout 2018, just as the Supreme Court confirmation process for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s may be driving engagement among young women who found it deeply upsetting.


About our 2018 Pre-Election Poll

The survey of young people, ages 18-24, was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University. The polling firm GfK, which collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents between September 5 and September 26, 2018. The study surveyed a total of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18- to 21-year-olds. The margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data above are for all the 18 to 24-year-olds in our sample.