Three Biggest Surprises from The Latest Generation Z Study

Market Research Foundation recently commissioned a nationwide study of 1,501 Generation Z Americans between the ages of 13 and 23, a group that will make up an increasing share of the electorate in 2020. Increasing speculation has surrounded the ‘youth vote’ since 2016, with most analysts lumping Generation Z in with Millennials and assuming they hold equally progressive views. However, as we noted previously, when separated from the rest of the ‘youth vote’, Generation Zers trended more conservative in battleground states last year. A growing body of research suggests Generation Z holds nuanced policy views that do not fit squarely into either party

Our new research seeks to understand Generation Z’s views on a range of technological, social, and political issues that will impact the nation in the next presidential election and beyond. Here are the three biggest surprises from our Generation Z study.

Generation Z Is Anti-Foreign Meddling, Especially Young Black People

Previous research hinted at Generation Z’s preference for a nationally-focused role for the United States as opposed to foreign-meddling, but the degree to which this was substantiated in our polling was surprising.

A full 70% of young people agreed with the statement, “The United States should stay out of international conflicts and only become involved when we are forced to.”  Interestingly, this view was more common among young females than young males, with 72% of young females agreeing compared with 67% of young males.

There was a relatively strong racial-component to views on foreign meddling as well. Young Black respondents showed the strongest support for staying out of foreign conflicts compared to Whites and Hispanics. As shown below, a full 74% of young Black people think the United States should stay out of international conflicts unless forced to, versus 70% of young whites and 64% of Hispanics.

While majorities in all regions preferred a non-interventionist foreign policy, there were significant deviations depending on where in the country young Americans live. Disagreement with this sentiment was highest in the West North Central states, (including ND, SD, NE, and KS), where 41% of Gen Zers disagreed with a reduced role for the United States in foreign conflicts compared to 30% across the entire country. Disagreement dropped to half that in the Middle Atlantic states of NY, NJ, PA, with only 20% of Middle Atlantic Gen Zers disagreeing with a reduced role for the United States.

Generation Z is Not Full of Radicals

It is easy to assume the youngest generation wants an all-out assault on traditional political structures, but the reality is most young people want to fix government from within, not overthrow it. We asked young people to indicate their support for three statements on their preferred approach to policy, and found that 63% want to fix the system from the inside, while just under 21% want radical change, and 16% weren’t sure they agree with either method.

While majorities in all ethnic groups and both genders overwhelmingly preferred fixing the system from within, preference for radical change had moderate race and gender deviations. Males preferred radical change at slightly higher rates than females (22% versus 20%). Black young people preferred radical change at the highest rates of all ethnicities. Twenty-five percent of Black young people preferred the radical change statement versus 21% of Whites and 21% of Hispanics.

Family income level also played a key role in preferences for radical change, with 28% of young people from families with an income under $25K preferring radical change, versus just 15% of young people from families with an income of $200K or more. Notably, individuals from families in the $100-200K preferred the radical change option at the second highest rate (24%).

Generation Z Doesn’t Think College Should be A Necessity, But Is Worried About Being Judged If They Opt Out

Previous research shows Generation Z is very debt-conscious, and much more careful when considering taking out student loans than Millennials. We asked young people to indicate their level of agreement with the following statement: “You can be financially successful and contribute to society in a meaningful way without getting a college degree.” Eighty-four percent of young people concurred that college is not a prerequisite to financial freedom and contribution to society.

This sentiment was highest among individuals who stated they voted third party in 2016, as opposed to voting for either President Trump or former secretary Clinton. Ninety-five percent of third-party voters agreed with the sentiment, versus 91% of Trump voters and 82% of Clinton voters.

Majorities in all ethnic groups agreed that financial success and contribution aren’t dependent on college attendance, but this view was less common among Hispanics.

While a majority indicated that a college degree shouldn’t stand in the way of financial success, a majority also shared concern about the social implications of forgoing college. Seventy-four percent agreed with the statement: “If you tell people you don’t want or don’t think you need a college degree, they treat you like you aren’t very smart or are wasting your life.” Individuals from families in the $100K to $200K income bracket were the most likely to share this sentiment, while individuals from families in the bracket just above were the least likely. Seventy-nine percent of individuals from families in the $100K to $200K range agreed with the “wasting your life” statement, versus 70% of those from families in the $200K and up bracket. Individuals in the lower- and middle-income brackets fell between these two extremes, at 76% for the under $25K group, 75% for the $25K to $50K group, and 74% for the $50K to $100K group. Below is a breakdown of agreement by income level.

Market Research Foundation’s preliminary findings on Generation Z indicate the thoughtfulness and nuance with which today’s young people approach politics and personal life. Our research shows this generation holds a strong preference for ending foreign meddling, working within existing political structures, and carefully weighing the costs of a college education. In coming weeks, we will be sharing additional findings.