January 30, 2023 Young people continue to believe in their—and their generation’s—political power, but some don’t feel qualified to participate.
Lead author: Ruby Belle Booth
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Abby Kiesa
Following a 2022 election cycle in which youth (ages 18-29) played a critical role, our exclusive survey reveals that more than half of young people still believe the country is on the wrong track, and many express major concerns about American values and institutions. At the same time, a majority of young people see politics as important to their personal identity, and more than three in four youth say they believe they can get involved and improve things in their communities.
Some youth are putting that belief into action through various forms of civic and political engagement, and many more say they might do so if given the opportunity. But too many young people—often those from historically marginalized groups—continue to say they don’t feel well-informed or qualified enough to participate in political life. That points to ongoing challenges in ensuring the equitable civic preparation and participation of all young people.
Major findings from our youth survey include:
- 55% of young people (ages 18-29) say the country is going in the wrong direction and only 16% believe it’s on the right track.
- 76% of respondents believe young people have the power to change the country, and 77% believe there are ways for them to get involved.
- A third of youth (32%) have signed a petition or joined a boycott, and 1 in 7 youth have participated in a march or demonstration, with even more youth (28%) saying they plan to protest or would do so or would if presented with the opportunity.
- Half of youth say they’re “as well-informed as most people” and only 40% say they feel well-qualified to participate in politics.
Concerned and Distrustful—but Hopeful
The majority of young people (55%) believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, with 16% saying it’s on the right track and the rest (28%) saying they’re not sure. There are some differences among groups of youth: for example, youth of color are more likely than white youth to say the country is on the right track or that they are unsure. Some of that may be partially explained by young people’s partisan preferences, since youth of color are more likely to support Democrats and their view of the current presidential administration may shape their view of the country’s direction. Young people who reported that they didn’t vote in 2022 were more likely to say they weren’t sure how they felt about the way things are going in the United States.
When asked why they feel the way they do about the direction of the country, many young people who say the country is on the wrong track cite inadequate action on issues they care about like inflation and cost of living, crime, and inequality. Some youth who are pleased with the country’s direction cited progress on some of those issues or the results of the 2022 election as reasons for their optimism. Crucially, while some young people who stated they weren’t sure how they would characterize the direction of the country said they weren’t following politics, others said they had mixed feelings because they saw both good and bad things happening in the country.
Many youth are also concerned about the country’s values and distrustful of major institutions. Nearly two-thirds of young people (62%) expressed concern about the values of the American people, and 45% said they believe that the country is failing to live up to its promises of freedom and fairness, compared to just 18% who believe the country has lived up to these promises.
Less than a third of young people said they trust either of the two major political parties, their state government, Congress, or the President. Among political institutions, the GOP and Congress garnered the highest levels of distrust from youth: 49% and 41%, respectively.
Youth also expressed distrust in large corporations (53%) and major news media (46%); the latter is especially concerning given the important role of news organizations in young people’s electoral learning and engagement. As with the direction of the country, there are important differences by race/ethnicity (51% of white youth distrust major news media, compared to 43% of young Latinos and 35% of Asian and Black youth) that may also correlate with differences in partisan leaning.
With regard to many institutions in American life, about a third of youth said that they neither trust nor distrust the institutions. As with young people who said they’re not sure how they feel about the direction of the country, their ambivalence may reflect a lack of access to/information about a particular institution, or complicated feelings about institutions in which youth see both negative and positive elements.
Young people also have mixed feelings about democracy itself. Only a quarter of young people said they feel confident about democracy in the United States, compared to 31% who are not confident and 43% who said neither. But even as they have major doubts about the democracy they see around them, youth are more optimistic about the potential of democracy: 50% agree (and only 13% disagree) that the democratic system “is capable of creating change” in the country. Similarly, 75% agree that voting is an important way to have a say in the future of the country.
That may be one reason why, despite the tensions between young people’s ideals and the realities of American democracy, more than half of youth (53%) said they are hopeful things will get better in the country.
Youth Know they Have Power, but Need Information and Support
Young people’s hope for the future may also be a reflection of their belief that their generation can and should engage in civic life and effect change. At the same time, there appears to be a gap between young people’s interest in political participation and whether they feel prepared and qualified to do so.
Young people have a strong sense of both individual and collective efficacy: 74% said that there are things they can do to make the world a better place, and 76% believe that their age group has the power to change things. Even more (83%) recognize the potential of young people working with other generations to create change.
In addition, almost two-thirds of young people (62%) say that their political views are a somewhat or very important part of their personal identity. Young women of color, LGBTQ youth, youth with college experience, and the older segment of the cohort (ages 25-29) are all more likely to say that politics are an important part of their identity, indicating both how marginalized identities and educational and lived experience can contribute to the formation of such political identities.
However, while a majority of youth have a strong sense that they could achieve change and a strong personal political identity, many don’t feel informed or qualified enough to participate in politics. Only half of youth say they feel they’re “as well-informed as most people,” which underscores our previous finding that 1 in 5 youth who did not vote in 2022 said they did not have enough information about the candidates or the voting process.
Even fewer youth in our survey (40%) say that they feel well-qualified to participate in politics, and youth from groups that have historically held less political power were even less likely to feel qualified. For example, 34% of youth of color say they feel qualified to participate in politics, compared to 44% of white youth. Young people ages 22-29 were also more likely to feel qualified than youth ages 18-21, who are often neglected by parties, campaigns, and organizations.
Whether a young person feels qualified can have a strong impact on participation at the ballot box and beyond, as evidenced by the fact that 53% of youth who voted in 2022 said that they felt well-qualified, compared to just 22% of those who didn’t vote in the midterms.
Some Youth Are Taking Action, Others Want More Opportunity
Young people’s sense of whether they’re well-qualified to participate in politics may be shaping, not just their voter turnout, but their willingness and ability to engage in other forms of political action. Young people’s participation in activities like volunteering for political campaigns, donating money, attending protests, or joining boycotts has risen in recent years, and our 2022 survey finds that youth are engaging in these efforts at rates similar to 2018—a year that was marked, in part, by youth-led gun violence protests after the Parkland school shooting.
That said, relatively few young people are participating in some of these political activities, perhaps owing to a majority of youth feeling they’re not qualified to do so. However, with regard to nearly every type of political engagement we asked about in our survey, far more young people said they plan to do it in the future or would be interested in doing it if they were presented with the opportunity. That suggests it may not be a lack of interest, but a lack of access, that is preventing a significant number of youth from engaging in political life.
Among the types of political engagement we asked about in the survey, signing a petition/joining a boycott, following candidates on social media, and attending demonstrations were the actions most frequently taken by youth. More than 1 in 7 young people said they’ve been to a protest or demonstration, and an additional 28% who haven’t yet done so said they plan to do it, or would do so given the opportunity. That means more than 40% of youth are interested in this type of political engagement.
Notably, while just 7% of youth said they have volunteered for a campaign, three times as many (21%) expressed interest in doing so, which suggests there is strong untapped potential for campaigns and candidates to recruit young people. Similarly, while only 2% of young people say they’ve run for office, more than 1 in 10 said they might do so. Our research has recently explored how young people are increasingly interested in running for office but face various barriers that must be addressed through explicit encouragement and support.
This new survey data underscores ongoing trends in young people’s civic engagement: youth are interested in getting involved and understand they have the power to effect change, but they sometimes lack the information, support, and explicit opportunities to do so. The fact that less than half of youth feel well-qualified to participate in political life also speaks to a lack of systemic, developmental support for young people to develop as voters and civic actors and find their voice within democracy.
Addressing these issues will require a commitment to the work we describe in our CIRCLE Growing Voters framework: multiple institutions working together to create diverse pathways for all youth to enjoy electoral learning and engagement opportunities.
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively. Read the Report and Learn More
About the Survey: The survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm Ipsos collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents and a sample of people recruited for this survey between November 9 and November 30, 2022. The study involved an online survey of a total of 2,018 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29 in the United States. The margin of error is +/- 2.2 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data are for all 18- to 29-year-olds in our sample.