Who Influences Young People Most? It’s not Who You Think

Who influences young people most? If you guessed Instagramers, Tik Tok stars, or even friends, you’d be surprised. Generation Z – young people born after 1995 – say that their parents exert the largest influence on their opinions and attitudes.

A growing number of Generation Z and younger Millennials are living at home with parents well into adulthood, and the coronavirus upset has recently driven as many as 39% of 24 to 29-year-olds back into to their parents’ homes. While it is easy to write off the ‘cellar dwellers’ as failures, the reality is more complex.

A new body of research shows today’s young adults have stronger relationships with their parents, more frequent communication, and are more likely to consult their parents for guidance than generations of the past. Karen Fingerman, a Professor of Human Development & Family Sciences at UT Austin, compiled a decade of research on young Americans’ relationship with their parents, and found that a complex web of social, political, technological and demographic changes over recent years is extending parent-child bonds and dependency. While the results of this extended-dependency are not yet entirely clear, what is clear is that younger people are moving out of the home later, starting their own families later, and approaching other milestones of adulthood like buying a home later. It is not all bad though. Young adults, particularly Generation Z, are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drugs, alcoholism, and promiscuity than Millennials at similar ages, and look to their parents, not social media or celebrities, for guidance.

Market Research Foundation’s comprehensive body of research on young people born between 1995 and 2005 shows that parents are by far the most influential variable shaping Generation Z’s views.

We asked Generation Z to allocate points out of 100 to one or more categories they feel influences their views. The largest influence for the largest group of young people is their parents, followed by their own morals and ethics and then their friends. Social media, celebrities, teachers and politicians rank significantly lower on young people’s list of influencers. Below is Generation Z’s ranking of the influences that shape their views.

Parents are biggest influence on Gen Z

The guiding force for a majority of Generation Z is their parents, and a majority of those parents are members of Generation X – a distinct age cohort sandwiched in between Boomers and Millennials. Generation Xers were born between 1965 and 1980 and comprise roughly 65 million Americans, making them one of the smaller age cohorts. For comparison, Boomers make up 75 million, Millennials make up 72 million, and Generation Zers make up 67 million in the United States.

Despite their smaller numbers, Gen Xers exert significant influence, particularly in consumer spending and wealth acquisition. A New York Times editorial on Generation X summarized research from luxury sector consultant Shullman showing by the mid-2000’s Generation X wielded more spending power than either boomers or Millennials, with 29% of the estimated net worth and 31% of the income. Generation X also wields substantial luxury spending income, spending 18% more on luxury goods than boomers as of 2012.

Politically, Generation Xers are less ideological than Boomers, and naturally skeptical of authority. While a slight majority are Democrats or Democrat-leaning, 39% of Gen Xers describe themselves as independents. According to Pew, 48% of Gen Xers identify as Democrats or lean Democratic while 43% identify as Republicans or lean Republican, even if they also identify as independents.

David L. Rosen, the founder of First Person Politics opined in a Politico article that Generation Xers are natural “socially liberal, economically conservative” libertarian-leaners:

“Having grown up as latchkey kids with weak parental supervision, Gen Xers are distrustful of authority and used to playing by their own rules. This underprotected upbringing has given Gen Xers a “hands off, leave me alone” mind-set, which often resonates with libertarianism. It was Gen Xers who popularized the phrase “socially liberal, economically conservative”—an ideological orientation reflecting their underlying distaste for authority. Indeed, many Gen X leaders—especially those on the right such as Paul Ryan—will turn out to have libertarian philosophical roots.”

How might these Gen X parents influence their Gen Z children? Existing data on Generation Z shows their views are more utilitarian and less ideological than those of Millennials. Much like their Gen X parents, Gen Zers prioritize financial stability, and many are working and saving money, taking side jobs, and scrutinizing the merits of college over vocational school or alternate career paths. The vast majority are independents, with weak party identity, a shown below.

Gen Z ideology MRF

Gen Zers reject radical change, and prefer to work within existing systems to improve things incrementally. Many recognize government’s role in creating or worsening economic and political issues. Eighty-three percent of Generation Z believes government has been a major contributor to the student loan crisis, 82% say when government can dictate what people can do with their body’s freedom is in danger, and 66% say the government has no business regulating which products adults can use. That said, Generation Z are far from revolutionaries. Just 21% of Generation Z say politics and government are so broken that radical change is needed to fix things, with 63% stating they’d prefer to work within the system to improve things. Generation Zers oppose foreign intervention and nation-building activities, with 73% saying that almost every time the U.S. has become involved in other countries’ conflicts, chaos ensues. Seventy percent say the U.S. should not get involved in foreign conflicts unless forced to.

Generation Zers also show a less ideological and more self-interested approach to international affairs. Seventy-five percent believe the primary goal of any law must be to benefit Americans first and foremost, and 73% overtly embrace an “America First” platform.

Closer parent-child relationships and intergenerational living arrangements are the surface layer of complex social and economic changes. The coronavirus impact on the economy is likely to further complicate matters. What is clear is that today’s young people are more shaped by their parents than any other force. Living at home with parents may not be an unwelcome circumstantial choice, but a preference to extend the bond. How this close relationship with parents could impact younger generation’s political views is not entirely clear, but research on Generation Z shows their views are more in line with their Generation X parents than with Millennials. Generation Z is less rebellious and revolutionary toward their parents, instead turning to their parents for insight. Gen Zers as a group are cautious, skeptical, self-interested, and economically-driven.