STUDY: Young People and Political Engagement

We’ve also learned a lot about the difficult economic circumstances of young adults, which are profoundly changing the process of coming of age. People are getting to all the milestones of adulthood later, whether it’s moving out of your parents’ house, getting a first job, buying a first home, getting married, having kids – these things are all happening five to seven years later than they did for this generation’s parents, the Baby Boomers. That raises all sorts of questions.

By Paul Taylor / Andrew Benedict-Nelson - Pew Research Center

These questions were part of an interview with Pew Research Center Executive Vice President Paul Taylor, conducted by Andrew Benedict-Nelson, content director for Insight Labs.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What are some of the main things the Pew Research Center has learned about young people’s involvement in politics?

Paul Taylor: About three years ago we did a report called “Millennials,” which was a survey of that generation’s attitudes and opinions on a whole range of matters, including civic and political participation. Then about six months ago we did a report on generational trends in voting, in which we showed that the partisan age gap is bigger than it’s ever been. There was a 34 percentage point difference in 2008 between how 18-to-29-year-olds voted and how 65-and-overs voted. As recently as ten years ago, there was no difference between those two cohorts. So something very profound has happened. The current youth cohort is coming of age with a very pro-government, pro-Obama mindset. Will that last for the course of their lives? We have no idea how that story ends – we only know how it has begun.

We also know that the turnout rate among young adults, after spiking up in 2008, went way down in 2010. And from what we’ve been able to discover so far this year, there’s a lot of question as to whether they will be as enthusiastic as they were in ’08. But if you look at the larger scheme of things, going back to 1972 when 18-year-olds first had the right to vote, the turnout gap between the generations has actually narrowed a little bit. It has long been a concern that young adults don’t participate in the political process, that they’re cynical about the two political parties. The Obama campaign was quite extraordinary in pushing against those trends. Now the question for those who are concerned about the civic life of the country is whether that was a one-time occurrence or not. We’ll obviously have a lot more evidence about that this coming fall.

ABN: What are some other things you’ve learned at Pew that don’t normally get brought up in discussions of young people and their political behavior?

PT: We’ve also learned a lot about the difficult economic circumstances of young adults, which are profoundly changing the process of coming of age. People are getting to all the milestones of adulthood later, whether it’s moving out of your parents’ house, getting a first job, buying a first home, getting married, having kids – these things are all happening five to seven years later than they did for this generation’s parents, the Baby Boomers. That raises all sorts of questions.

We are also at this moment when the Boomers are crossing this threshold of 65 and putting a huge burden on Social Security and Medicare. It’s not clear that we as a society can make that math work. At some point over the next five or 10 or 20 years, we may have to re-negotiate the social compact between young and old. That may be difficult, because not only are these generations politically different, but they are also racially and ethnically different – we’re looking at a future society where most old people are white and most young people are non-white. That adds another layer to the challenges we’ll face. READ MORE

Image: The Bosses of the Senate published in Puck 1889, Image Credit: Joseph Keppler