Out with The Olds!

March for our lives
Gen Z students at the March for Our Lives rally. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
June 22, 2022

By 2028, Millennials and Gen Z will combine to become the largest voting age population in the nation. In just six years, today’s middle and high school students—often dismissed and patronized by the country’s gerontocratic political leadership—will be casting ballots for president. They will be joining the workforce, paying taxes, shaping media and entertainment, defining consumer trends and pushing aside older millennials and Gen Xers who must finally come to terms with the fact that they are no longer cool. 

Even with that massive generational shakeup looming, there remains precious little research and in-depth analysis on how younger Americans think about politics and society. The lack of insight is particularly acute when it comes to Gen Z. Sure, ad agencies and brands release consumer surveys, trying to figure out how companies can market themselves to Zoomers. And while trend pieces about young Americans in the press often go viral, they frequently center the voices of people who grab attention on social media, not the majority of teenagers who go unseen by reporters in New York or Washington. Pollsters are rarely asking the right questions of that generation, and most polls don’t even survey Americans under the age of 18 in the first place. That kind of sampling is difficult and expensive to do, of course. But it also means that most polls claiming to explain how “young people” vote, shop and use media are ignoring a huge chunk of American teenagers—including the millions of 17-year olds who will be of voting age by November. 

A major new project, funded by Emma Bloomberg’s education nonprofit Murmuration, in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, is trying to fix that knowledge gap by releasing one of the largest and most in-depth surveys ever completed on Gen Z. “Everyone is talking about Gen Z, but not enough people are actually doing anything different to try to more deeply engage with this generation, to really think about what their orientation around the world actually means, for action on issues that we all think really matter for this country,” Bloomberg told me. The full results of the project, formally titled “Looking Forward With Gen Z,” were provided exclusively to Puck before being made public this week.

During the week spanning the end of May and the beginning of June, Murmuration and the Walton Foundation tapped Harvard University youth pollster John Della Volpe to survey almost 4,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 25, in hopes of better understanding what Gen Z wants from American society and why they’re revolting at institutions of all kinds—government, schools, corporations, and lately, President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have collapsed among young people, imperiling his party’s midterm chances this year. “This is such a pivotal moment with Gen Z taking on more authority as a political force,” said Romy Drucker, the director of the K-12 Education Program at the Walton Family Foundation. “We have this brief window of time to work together—philanthropy, the social sector, and also in partnership with the private sector—to think not just about how this generation is defining success for themselves, but what we can all do together to take action on that.”

The poll found that while Gen Z follows politics closely, they also believe that the current political system has little to offer their generation, a finding that squares with what I wrote in December about the Democratic Party’s troubled relationship with young voters. Nearly half of Zoomers talk about politics and current events with their close friends at least once a week. But among voting-age Americans under 25, only 30 percent said they would “definitely” be voting in the November elections, compared with 60 percent of Americans 26 or older. Della Volpe also conducted Gen Z focus groups in Houston, Atlanta, and Columbus to get more texture around the poll’s findings, and a key takeaway was that many Zoomers believe that officials in power, regardless of party, simply do not represent the interests of young people today. They said they wanted politicians to prioritize tangible economic and social outcomes rather than culture war fights, to avoid incrementalism, and to prove that their votes actually count in a functioning democracy. Their consensus, as Bloomberg put it, is that “democracy hasn’t really proven itself yet.”

Asked to rank their top issues, the Gen Z respondents named four topics that almost never appear in campaign ads or stump speeches. Preventing school shootings was first, followed by protecting access to clean water and fresh air, reducing gun violence and mass shootings, and guaranteeing quality education for every child. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate appear close to hashing out a deal on a modest package of gun safety reforms, which could reach a vote this week. But Della Volpe told me he is surprised that these issues are not more prevalent in political campaigns. “When I write memos to political leaders, they say, ‘Why didn’t you mention, you know, marijuana? Why didn’t you mention this or that thing?’ And the reason I don’t mention marijuana is because of the 26 things on my list, it’s like literally at the bottom in terms of youth priorities. And that gets to a bigger theme that comes through this research, which is this concern with younger people in particular about the potential for the very real loss of individual rights and freedoms in terms of what it means to be a young American.” 

An Existential Crisis

Zoomers are preoccupied with existential issues like mass shootings and climate change. But they are also less likely than older Americans to make political parties or ideology a core part of their personal identity. Family and community come first, the poll found. Society and politics come second. The poll found that sexual identity, for instance, is more fundamental to who they are than their college, socio-economic class, or political ideology. Asked about their political beliefs, 41 percent of Zoomers simply described themselves as “moderate,” undercutting the idea that America’s youngest voters are either socialist Bernie stans or MAGA meme addicts. 

Gen Z is more likely to derive pride and value from their personal interests, their communities, and their careers instead of national politics. “We saw this constant theme, that one of their goals is simply independence,” Della Volpe told me. “Financial independence is part of that. They are cognizant of the fact that most millennials, during the Great Recession, weren’t able to do that for the first time in history. So success is simply to be and feel financially independent. That has different connotations based upon who you are and where you’re coming from, but it’s critically important when we think about all of the macro political issues that we’re debating.” Asked to rank their top goals before turning 30, 71 percent of Zoomers said “owning a home,” 69 percent said “being married,” and 67 percent said “financial independence.” Gen Z, too, expressed more confidence than millennials that they could achieve those goals.

Bloomberg and Drucker conceptualized the study, over a few glasses of wine, with a shared interest: Education. Both have backgrounds in the “education reform” movement, which over the last three decades has become synonymous with expanding charter schools, vouchers, and battling teachers unions in public school districts across the country. But neither of those lightning rod topics were woven into the survey, which was by design. Drucker said the goal of the survey was to listen to students themselves, rather than bend the data to validate any political agenda. “The research is bringing us closer to understanding the things that young people are saying they need to know and feel, in order to live the kind of life they wanna live,” she said. Bloomberg said the survey “is a good reminder that when you spend your life working on trying to solve problems in a public school system, you should probably check with the people who are actually in that public system to see what they want.”

If Gen Z craves financial independence and to own a home by age 30, they also say that high school doesn’t prepare them well enough to achieve those goals. Of the students interviewed, only about two in five (39 percent) say that their K-12 education prepared them to succeed in their work or life. And only 37 percent said the same about becoming “an active and engaged citizen.” Only a third said their education prepared them to live “a balanced and happy life.” And a third of Zoomers do not believe their local schools do a good job of listening to the voice and values of people like them. Students demanded changes to curriculum more than anything else, with classes geared toward practical learning rather than abstract academics. They said they wanted more classes on civics, financial literacy, and more of a focus on mental health.

But, as with politics, the very same Zoomers expressed optimism that schooling could be changed for the better. It seems contradictory, but Gen Z has both a dim view of America’s institutions and a reservoir of hope that the country can find a way to do better by its youngest citizens. “With this generation, we were able to find all kinds of commonalities, where in older generations we find division,” Bloomberg said. “There’s this idea of civil discourse and of wanting to work on things together. To have equal opportunity and to be collaborative and to be part of a community. And I think that’s pretty unique to this generation and it’s hopefully exciting for the future of this country.”