If you haven’t seen coverage of the Pew Research Center’s report on Generation Z – the generation born after roughly 1994 – you probably will soon. Pundits and analysts from Salon to CNN trumpeted the report as confirmation that America’s youngest generation holds political views that will place them squarely in the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party. As Pew notes, Generation Z is the most ethnically diverse age cohort in the country, and their views mirror those of Millennials on a myriad of issues from same-sex marriage to comfort using “gender neutral pronouns”. Pew notes seven-in-ten Gen Zers say the government should “do more to solve problems in this country”, while just 29% say government is doing too much. While this does indeed suggest the average Gen Zer isn’t a Grover Norquist-style conservative who wants government so small it can be “drowned in a bathtub”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Generation Z voters fit into the progressive camp either. Here are the nuances that are largely missing from most of the analysis so far and why the GOP needs to pay attention.
A Larger Share of Generation Z Compared to Millennials Thinks the Country is Going in The Right Direction
Let’s start with the very first question on Pew’s survey, which attempts to take the temperature of the youngest generation’s views on the direction of the country: “Thinking about the way things are going in the country today, do you think things are generally going in the right direction or the wrong direction?”
As shown below, there is a clear trend for younger generations to hold a more negative view of the of the country, but Millennials, not Generation Z, hold the most pessimistic views. Sixty-seven percent of Generation Zers versus a full 73% of Millennials think the country is on the wrong track. On the flip side, a larger share of America’s youth is upbeat on the direction of the country when compared to Millennials. Thirty-two percent of Gen Zers versus 26% of Millennials think the country is on the right track. Generation Z’s views are much closer to those of their Gen X parents than Millennials, with 33% of Gen Xers expressing optimism about the direction of the country, and 66% holding a negative view. Yes, a majority of Gen Zers are bearish on the direction of the country, but so are majorities in every age cohort. Pew’s data shows that Generation Z is in fact bucking a steady correlation between youth and pessimism when compared to other generations.
Gender of Generation Zers Plays a Major Role in Their Political Views
It is particularly pertinent to segment out views by gender within Generation Z. While Pew found a large share of Generation Zers hold negative views of Trump, prioritize issues like LGBTQ rights, and think race relations are a critical concern, polls that examine similar issues by gender reveal stark deviations.
Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, conducted a comprehensive analysis into 15-24 olds in 2018, and found that Trump is viewed favorably by more than 4 in 10 young white men. Additional findings include:
- Young women are about twice as likely as men to prioritize the issue of LGBT rights: 36% of young women say it is a critical issue, compared to 19% of young men. Young women are also about twice as likely as young men to say gender equality is a critical matter (51% vs. 26%, respectively).
- Only 29% of white young men say race relations are a critical concern to them personally, compared to only 46% of white young women.
- Eight in ten (80%) black young people and a majority of API (55%) and Hispanic (52%) young people say race relations are a critical issue to them personally, while only 37% of white young people agree.
- More than 1 in 3 white young people believe “reverse” discrimination is a serious problem.
- White young men are more likely than white young women (43% vs. 29%, respectively) to say discrimination against whites is as serious a problem as discrimination against other groups.
Looking back at 2016, a national survey of approximately 50,000 high school students conducted by My College Options and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, found Trump led Clinton 46% to 31% for first-time voters, and 42% to 17% among Generation Z males.
- Among white male high school students, Trump led 58% to Clinton’s 8%.
- More white male high school students said they would vote for a third-party candidate, than for Clinton – 9% would vote third party, 8% would support Clinton, 3% would write in a candidate, and 21% would not vote.
2018 Midterms Showed Generation Z Breaking from Democrats in Key Races
The most recent information we have on Generation Z’s voter behavior are state exit polls of voters 18 to 24 from the midterm elections. Here, there was a notable shift in young voters to the right when compared to Millennials in tight races in states like Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
As Market Research Foundation has previously noted, when the youth vote includes all voters under 30, the majority of under-thirties side with Democrats. However, when the youth vote is defined as those under twenty-five, the youngest voters break from pattern, supporting Republicans at higher proportions than those over twenty-five.
In a score of tight races last fall, the 18 to 24-year-old age cohort was the only segment under age 40 to break from the typical youth-vote-left pattern, supporting Republican candidates at rates significantly higher than Millennials. One of the races that captured this shift was the Indiana senate race, where Republican state lawmaker Mike Braun defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly with the support of Indiana’s youngest voters. Braun tied with Donnelly for the under-twenty-five segment 47% to 47%, and more voters under age 25 voted for Braun than those in every other age cohort under 40, as shown below.
Generation Z Prefers Hierarchy, Leans Populist, and Favors a More Active Role for Government
One of the questions on the Pew survey that garnered the most attention is on the role of government. As shown below, a full 70% of Generation Z thinks government should do more to solve problems.
Many in the mainstream media have interpreted this response to mean Generation Z favors progressive policies. While it is likely a share of America’s youth do want government to act on raising taxes, banning firearms, and dictating which gender-pronouns they’re allowed to use, it is entirely possible a share of them want government action on issues like lower taxes, border security, and free speech. Market research is already capturing Generation Z’s more pragmatic nature and preference for hierarchy and structure. The Wall Street Journal noted this generation prefers hierarchy in the workplace, while Goldman Sachs analysts Robert Boroujerdi and Christopher Wolf previously noted the more cautious attitudes of Generation Z:
“Raised by Gen-X parents during a time marred by economic stress, rising student debt burdens, socio-economic tensions and war overseas, these youths carry a less idealistic, more pragmatic perspective on the world.”
What is more, global research on Generation Z indicates an appetite for nationalism, a political framework that does indeed call for government action, but doesn’t necessarily align with a progressive set of policy goals. A 2018 survey of over three thousand young adults between the ages of 18 and 23 in G20 countries found 51% of Gen Z’ers globally favor a nationalist approach to public policy, while just 32% favor a globalist approach.
Gen Z prefers nationalism to globalism by a margin of 18%. In the United States, 52% prefer nationalism by a 24% margin.
It is therefore not surprising that America’s youth want government to help solve problems. However, this does not mean they want government to solve problems with liberal solutions. Researchers are now tasked with digging deeper to identify which issues Generation Z wants government to act on, and importantly, which solutions they think government should use to solve the array of issues facing the country. Do they want government to act on improving international trade policies to benefit the U.S., scaling down U.S. military occupations in Europe and the Middle East, fixing the immigration crisis on the Southern border?
Yes, there are progressives within the Generation Z cohort. But this generation’s policy priorities vary significantly by race and gender, and coalesce around a preference for an active role for government. Conflating Generation Z’s desire for government action with a progressive agenda is premature. The populist rallying cry of the New Right, “make America great again”, is nothing if not a call for action.