Economic anxiety and cultural fissures among biggest concerns for Gen Z Americans
WASHINGTON (January 23, 2024)— As many young Americans gear up to vote in their first presidential election, a new national survey released today by Public Religion Research Institute(PRRI) finds that most Gen Z Americans, particularly Gen Z Democrats, believe generational change in political leadership is necessary to solve our problems, compared with fewer Americans from older generations.
This survey considers what sets members of Gen Z apart from older generations in terms of their political and cultural values, their faith in communities and political institutions, and their views about religion and the importance of diversity and inclusion in U.S. democracy. The survey includes both the results of a national survey of all Americans with oversamples of Gen Zers,including both adults (18-25) and teens (13-17) — whose major findings are described separately to analyze those who are eligible to vote and those who are not — as well as an analysis of ten virtual focus groups with a wide cross-section of Gen Z adults from across the United States.
“The most diverse generation in our nation’s history, Generation Z, is hungry for younger political leadership and believes older Americans don’t understand the struggles young people face,” says Melissa Deckman, Ph.D., CEO of PRRI. “Adult members of Gen Z express less trust in many of our nation’s institutions than older Americans, but participate in politics at similar rates. On the other hand, Gen Z teens, who are just beginning to engage in the political process, currently trend more moderate and less partisan than Gen Z adults.”
Gen Z doesn’t want a party label; ideologically, Gen Z adults skew more liberal than older Americans.
Gen Z adults (21%) are less likely than all generations save millennials (21%) to identify as Republican; they identify as Democrats at similar rates as other generations (36%), except Gen Xers, who are less Democratic (31%). Among Gen Z teens, more than half (51%) do not identify with either major political party, compared with 43% of Gen Z adults. Most Gen Z teens share the same partisan identity as their parents.
Gen Z adults are also more liberal than older Americans, with 43% of Gen Z adults identifying as liberal. With the exception of millennials (24%), Gen Z adults (28%) are notably less likely than other generational cohorts to identify as conservative. While Gen Z women are substantially more liberal (47%) than Gen Z men (38%), that gender gap is smaller among Gen Z teens, with 27% of teen girls identifying as liberals compared with 21% of teen boys. By contrast, white Gen Z teens are more conservative (38%) compared with nonwhite teens (21%). A plurality of Gen Z teens (44%) identifies as politically moderate.
When asked what issues their generation is focusing on today, Gen Z adult focus group participants listed numerous concerns, including: lack of access to reproductive rights and healthcare more generally, challenges to the rights of LGBTQ Americans and the education system, including book bans, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, rising crime rates, as well as immigration and the crisis at the Southern border.
Far and away, however, the issue that dominated conversation across all focus groups was the economy. Regardless of race, ethnicity, party, socioeconomic status, gender, or LGBTQ identity, Gen Zers found common ground on their economic struggles, referencing a lack of good paying jobs, inflation, and high rent prices as being among their biggest challenges today.
While Gen Z distrusts institutions overall, they remain engaged in politics on and offline.
Most focus group participants expressed little faith in the federal government or elected officials in Washington, D.C. Many Gen Z adults believed that elected officials put the needs of the wealthy or corporations ahead of average Americans, while others believed that political polarization on both sides leads to gridlock and the inability of the federal government to solve our most basic problems.
Others expressed their concern that federal office holders, because they are too old and lack diversity, are out of touch with the needs of most Americans, particularly younger adults. “I feel like the younger generation, like around our age can’t really relate to politicians nowadays just because they’re a lot older and they don’t have the same life outlook as we do,” said a male participant in the Republican group.
Nationally, just four in ten Gen Z adults trust the federal government some or a great deal (41%), compared with roughly half of all American adults (49%); Gen Z adults are also far less trusting of the police (53%) than most Americans (70%).
Despite holding little trust in America’s political institutions, Gen Z adults participate just as much — if not more — than older Americans in politics. Gen Z adults engage in online political activities at similar or higher rates than older Americans and volunteer and attend political rallies at higher rates. Moreover, Gen Z adults who are Democratic engage in more political activities than Gen Z Republican adults or Gen Z adults who identify as independent.
Gen Z teens are more trusting of institutions than Gen Z adults. However, Gen Z teens are far less politically active than Gen Z adults.
Only half of Gen Z adults think college is a smart investment in the future, while Gen Z teens express more optimism about college’s financial impact on their futures.
Many Gen Z focus group participants pointed to student loan debt or higher costs of living today in wake of high inflation for the past several years as to why they questioned whether college remains a smart economic investment. In the survey, Gen Z Americans are evenly divided on this question with half of Gen Z adults (49%) saying college is a smart investment. Millennials (42%) are the least likely of any generation to say that college is a smart investment. Except for adult Gen Z independents (45%), majorities of both adult and teen Gen Z partisans and teen Gen Z independents believe college remains a smart investment.
Most Americans (63%) believe that programs geared toward helping poor students or students of color get admission to selective or prestigious colleges are effective in preparing young people for the future. This includes majorities of Gen Z adults (69%) and millennials (67%).
Around six in ten members of older generations, including 62% of Gen Xers, 58% of baby boomers, and 63% of the Silent Generation, also believe such programs are effective for young people. Similarly, at least 3 in 4 Gen Z adults support some student loan forgiveness, as well as programs involving the provision of money for technical school, community service or training to understand the political system. Younger generations are more likely than older generations to believe this program is effective: 75% of Gen Z adults, 67% of millennials, 60% of Gen X, 50% of Baby Boomers, and 51% of the Silent Generation.
Overall, Americans largely reject the notion that young people are too lazy to get good jobs, saying instead they lack necessary training. More than six in ten (62%) of Americans agree that the country has failed to prepare younger people with the skills to get good-paying jobs. Americans across generations also hold strong positive views of programs aimed at helping young Americans prepare for the future, including providing funding for young people to attend trade or technical school and for high school graduates to do community service, as well asinvestments in training young people to understand the political system or solve problems in their communities.
Like millennials, Gen Zers are also less likely than older generations to affiliate with an established religion.
Despite being one of the least religious generations, Gen Z is more religiously diverse compared with older Americans. Except for millennials, Gen Z adults are notably less likely to be white Christians and more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated than older generations. Gen Z teens are more likely to identify as a member of a religious tradition, attend church more frequently, and find religion more important than Gen Z adults, likely due to strong parental influence. Over eight in ten white Christian Gen Z teens (83%) and Christian Gen Z teens of color (85%) report the same religion as their parents, compared with 68% of unaffiliated teens. Additionally, Gen Z Republicans — both adults and teens — attend church more often, say that religion is more important to them, and have higher trust in organized religion.
Generation Z is more likely to find meaning than older Americans online; Gen Z adults are also more likely than older Americans—and their teen counterparts, to express feeling negative emotions.
Gen Z adults are more likely than older generations to say that social media (52%), organized sports (42%), or video games (48%) are important for making meaningful connections. They are just as likely as older Americans to find meaning in religious or political activities. The majority of Gen Z teens find meaning in playing organized sports (58%). Gen Z men and boys often find meaningful connections playing video games, while Gen Z women and girls are more likely to use social media for meaningful engagement. Gen Zers who make meaningful connections through in-person activities, such as religious activities or sports, report feeling negative emotions less often, while Gen Zers who make meaningful connections through social media report feeling negative emotions more often.
The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. The survey was made possible through the generous support of the New Pluralists Collaborative, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The survey was carried out among a representative sample 6,014 participants, including an oversample of teens 13-17 years old and adults 18-25 years old, living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, who are part of Ipsos’s Knowledge Panel and an additional 602 who were recruited by Ipsos using opt-in survey panels to increase the sample sizes in smaller states and 18-25 years old. Interviews were conducted online between August 21-September 15, 2023. The margin of error for those surveyed age 18+ is +/- 1.58 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence, including the design effect for the survey of 1.53. The margin of error for those surveyed age 13+ is +/- 1.51 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence, including the design effect for the survey of 1.58. In addition to sampling error, surveys may also be subject to error or bias due to question wording, context, and order effects.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.
# # #