Will young peoples’ economic concerns and mistrust of government keep them from the polls? 

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Matt George

Partner, Head of Research

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Annie Phifer

Research Manager

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Jessa Scott-Johnson

Senior Director - Research

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Eunice Yau

Manager – Research

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A new Harvard poll reports some dismal statistics about young people: overarching economic concerns, worry about entering the job market, and low political engagement. 

To explore young Americans’ attitudes toward politics and public service, the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School conducted a survey of 2,010 young people ages 18 to 29 from March 14 to 21, 2024.  

What they found: 3x more young people are concerned about economic issues (27%) than the next highest of the national “issue buckets,” like immigration (9%), national security (8%), environmental issues (6%), or reproductive rights (6%). In a separate question that challenged participants to rate issue groups based on their level of importance, young Americans chose “inflation” as the most important (64%) – above healthcare (59%), housing (56%), gun violence (54%), or student debt (26%).   
Current college students seem particularly concerned – a majority (58%) expect it to be difficult for students in their college classes to find permanent jobs upon graduation. Just 10% expected the job hunt to be very easy. 

Young people’s pessimism about the economy carries over to government, too. Three-quarters of respondents agreed that elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons, with a full 40% in strong agreement. Just 5% disagreed. 

In fact, young people expressed skepticism about every organization/institution within the questionnaire. Young Americans don’t expect institutions to tell the truth. Nearly half (48%) believe that Wall Street “never” chooses to do the right thing. The same can be said about the media (38%), Congress (27%), the President (25%), and the Supreme Court (25%). The highest-scoring institutions were the U.S. military and the United Nations, but neither scored more than 40% trust (full or partial). 

Young Americans’ distrust of institutions may contribute to decreased political engagement.  Just 27% of respondents considered themselves politically engaged or politically active – possibly because a plurality (41%) also believed that their vote does not make a real difference.  

However, despite this political cynicism, only 11% say that they would definitely not be voting in the upcoming election. In fact, two thirds of younger voters indicate that they will “definitely” or “probably” vote.   

This presents an opportunity to impact younger Americans and restore some of their feelings of political agency. If American institutions and politicians make it clear that they are listening to young people’s concerns and are taking action on the (economic) issues they care the most about, more young people may begin to believe their vote counts – and thus be more politically engaged. 

See the full poll results here: https://iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/2024-04/240415_Harvard_IOP_Spring_2024_Topline_Final.pdf