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For young Americans, politics breaks the American dream instead of building it

Visitors look upon the White House as the US flag flies at half mast following a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee last March.
STEFANI REYNOLDS
/
AFP via Getty Images
Visitors look upon the White House as the US flag flies at half mast following a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee last March.

Gen Z and millennials have high hopes for the future. Except when it comes to politics.

That's according to a new report exclusively obtained by NPR from the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics at American University, examining the goals and values of younger Americans today.

The survey of 1,568 adults between 18 and 34 found that young people are optimistic about their futures and envision becoming more successful than their parents. But they express more negativity when thinking about the effect the government and political system will have on their lives in the coming decades.

"That is consistently an area where there's a disconnect," said Molly O'Rourke, a senior adviser with the Sine Institute.

"There definitely needs to be an improvement and a real, more focused engagement to fix or remedy that," she added.

Which could, in part, fall on the politicians of today. But, ahead of the 2024 election, young Americans continue to show weak enthusiasm for President Biden and the entire Republican presidential primary pool. Plus, nearly a quarter of young people remain politically undecided when choosing between the incumbent president and an unnamed, eventual Republican nominee.

Political uncertainty clouds young people's goals

When thinking about their American Dream, six in 10 young Americans expect to have a better life than previous generations.

Nearly two-thirds say they will have more opportunities to obtain an education. And over half expect to have a stronger shot at finding their ideal job and establishing impactful personal relationships.

But that optimism diminishes when thinking about the political future.

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Just a third of adults under 34 expect to have a more representative and functional government than their parents.

And while young Americans credit family and friends, along with education and community support, as impactful roles in their lives, nearly half say that the political system and the way elected officials are chosen has done more to hold them back.

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O'Rourke argues politicians have an opportunity to fill gaps in confidence and trust among young voters ahead of the next election by honing in on issues they care about.

"[Young people] don't feel as though they're being listened to or their experiences aren't being reflected in people who are making decisions about their lives," O'Rourke said.

"Elected leaders and candidates have a tremendous opportunity in 2024 to do a better job of engaging with this block of the electorate," she explained. "They're very honest about the things that they want and the experiences that they have and the struggles that they're facing. It's just that they don't hear anybody reflecting that back to them."

Three out of five young people surveyed say that financial insecurity is a factor in limiting their futures. Nearly half also cite mental health challenges as a barrier, relating to anxiety and feelings of hopelessness, along with more than 40% who say a distrust in government and social institutions.

And those roadblocks align with some of the top issues for the generations as they think about how they will cast their ballots in the 2024 election.

When asked to pick a maximum of three important issues that will inform their vote ahead of next year, a quarter of young Americans say health care is top of mind, closely followed by the economy and housing affordability at 24%. Along with issues related to reproductive rights (23%), climate change (21%), and gun violence (20%.)

According to Reed Howard — the vice president of strategy and public affairs at the Millennial Action Project, which was a partner on the report — these issue priorities track with previous trends among young political leaders.

More than party affiliation, Howard says specific issues drive how young people get politically involved and decide which candidate to support.

"Young people are more connected to problem solvers who can address real issues in their lives than they are tied to a political party allegiance," he said. "I think that's going to shift how we do politics in the country. So people are going to reward problem solvers instead of finger pointers. And ultimately, I think that will lead to better results in our politics."

Many of these issues have sparked youth-led movements, particularly in the wake of acts of gun violence and as part of efforts to address climate change. Plus, protecting abortion access was a top priority for young voters in the 2022 midterms, which saw high turnout among the age group.

Enthusiasm for 2024 is low

As the primary season inches closer, young voters remain lukewarm on the presidential candidate pool.

No major candidate of either party has a grip on young Americans at this early stage.

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When asked to rate their feelings for each candidate, Biden retains the highest favorability at 32%, though his unfavorability rating eclipses that at 43%.

That said, many of the Republican leading candidates hold even higher unfavorable ratings than Biden.

Half of the respondents hold an unfavorable view of former President Donald Trump, and among that group, a vast majority (41%) consider their feelings "very unfavorable."

But when young Americans were asked where their vote lies in 2024, many remain unsure. Just 24% say they definitely plan to vote for Biden, while 20% say they are likely to support him, a much smaller percentage of the youth vote than Biden received in 2020.

A third of respondents say they definitely or probably plan to vote for the eventual Republican nominee, and a quarter remain undecided. Among undecided voters, it's split down the middle.

To Howard, this indecision has a simple answer.

"I think young people are focused on the issues that are right in front of them right now, as they should be. And the election seems pretty far out," he said.

And given the long campaign ahead, O'Rourke urges caution with these numbers. However, she says the findings indicate that no party has young voters locked down.

"Young people are really looking. They're looking for alternatives," she said. "They're not committed to either side yet. They really want to have this dialogue unfold still."

That's why politicians across the political spectrum say they are working to engage these voters now.

And it's a goal that extends all the way to the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris kicks off a multi-state college tour Thursday, starting in Hampton, Va. She's expected to make upcoming stops in North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, all key swing states in 2024.

"This generation is critical to the urgent issues that are at stake right now for our future," Harris said in a statement. According to the White House, she plans to address various topics, including safeguarding abortion access, curbing gun violence and addressing climate change.

"My message to students is clear: We are counting on you, we need you, you are everything," she added.

Millennial and Gen Z voters will make up nearly half of the electorate next year and keep growing over the next decade.

Jeff Sine, a founding, major donor at The Sine Institute of Policy & Politics, also serves as the chair of NPR's Board of Directors.

NPR's Daniel Wood contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.
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