Millennials & Politics: Why the Youth Vote Matters

November 4, 2016 – Millennials and politics. What a hot topic just four days out from the general election. This demographic group is now as large a potential political force as Baby Boomers, poised to make up 25 percent of the vote on Tuesday, according to an analysis of U.S. census data from the Pew Research Center. By comparison, in the 2012 election, voters between the ages of 18-29 made up less than 20 percent of the electorate.

But any further comparisons might stop there. While the Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood, they are, in fact, relatively unattached to organized politics, instead linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, and optimistic about the future. Is it fair to lump everyone into this narrow ban? Of course not. But current research suggests these are some of the general insights into Millennial thinking and behavior that most do agree on, even Millennials themselves.

Politically Independent

Pew Research Center surveys show that half of Millennials (50 percent) now describe themselves as political independents. These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics. (See Exhibit 1)

“This generation is informed predominately through the social media lens, good or bad,” said Smooch S. Reynolds, an executive recruiter with DHR International, and a Millennial prognosticator. “This generation has had little opportunity to set a foundation to develop critical and key criteria that feel right in order to contribute to being a productive part of this election.”

Why the Millennial Vote Matters

In this second podcast episode of ‘Talent Talks,’ DHR International’s global investor relations and communications practice group leader, Smooch S. Reynolds, is back to offer up some powerful insight. According to Ms. Reynolds, Millennials are poised to have a massive influence on the future of American government. But the key question she asks is will they stand up and get out the vote? Listen Now.


Pew Center research that Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for their liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. Not only do half of all Millennials choose not to identify with either political party, just 31 percent say there is a great deal of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. (See Exhibit 2)

According to U.S. Census data, about a third of people under age 44 (the group for which data was presented) did not vote in the 2012 presidential election, with more than half of those ages 18-24 not voting. If voting in the 2016 election stays on that track, it will be the third election in which fewer younger people decided not to take part in the voting process. Ms. Reynolds said this might have to do with the political structure itself. “Millennials focus their energies where they can be productive in a quick and effective manner,” she noted. “In many ways, our political system simply doesn’t allow for that.”

Even so, this generation stood out in the past two presidential elections as strikingly Democratic. According to national exit polls, the young-old partisan voting gaps in the last elections of 2008 and 2012 were among the largest in the modern era, with Millennials far more supportive than older generations of Barack Obama. As President Obama’s approval ratings have declined in recent years, however, Millennials have joined older adults in lowering their assessments of him. (See Exhibit 3)

Yet Millennials continue to view the Democratic Party more favorably than the Republican Party. And Millennials today are still the only generation in which liberals are not significantly outnumbered by conservatives.

Again, Ms. Reynolds weighs in. “As Millennials grow older and gain some heft in terms of wisdom through their life experiences and through work experiences, who knows where they’re going to net out politically. My guess is they will try to align themselves with whichever party seems to present concrete, effective answers to societal challenges.” Regardless, she said, they will always focus on the ethics of the candidate pool. “This is even more of a reason for Millennials to get out the vote.”

Millennials by Age and Race

As is the case within any generation, Millennials are not all alike. They are a diverse group with a myriad of views on many of the important issues of their time. And some political analysts have suggested that older and younger Millennials may differ in terms of their political views and party allegiances.

However, Pew Research’s report shows that the shares of younger and older Millennials who identify with the Democratic Party are roughly comparable. Younger and older Millennials also have similar assessments of the job Barack Obama has done as president. Fifty percent of younger Millennials (ages 18 to 25) and 47 percent of older Millennials (26 to 33) approve of the way he is handling his job as the nation’s chief executive.

exhibit222The political views of Millennials differ significantly across racial and ethnic lines. About half of white Millennials (51 percent) say they are political independents. The remainder divide between the Republican (24 percent) and Democratic (19 percent) parties. Among non-white Millennials, about as many (47 percent) say they are independent. But nearly twice as many (37 percent) identify as Democrats while just nine percent identify as Republicans.

These partisan patterns are closely linked to views of President Obama. While Millennials as a group are somewhat more approving of him than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers, these differences are driven more by race and ethnicity than by age. White Millennials’ views of President Obama are not substantially different from those of older whites. Some 34 percent of white Millennials approve of the job he is doing as president, compared with 33 percent of Gen Xers, and 37 percent of Baby Boomers. By contrast, 67 percent of non-white Millennials give the president high marks for the job he’s doing.

White and non-white Millennials have different views on the role of government as well. On balance, white Millennials say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services (52 percent), rather than a bigger government that provides more services (39 percent). Non-white Millennials lean heavily toward a bigger government: 71 percent say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while only 21 percent say they would prefer a smaller government. The racial gaps are about as wide among Gen Xers and Boomers.


Economic Hardships

Perhaps influencing Millennials’ political views is the fact that they are the first generation in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Baby Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.

Their difficult economic circumstances in part reflect the impact of the Great Recession (2007-2009) and in part the longer-term effects of globalization and rapid technological change on the American workforce. Median household income in the U.S. today remains below its 1999 peak, the longest stretch of stagnation in the modern era, and during that time income and wealth gaps have widened.

Not surprisingly, the new Pew Research survey finds that about seven-in-10 Americans, spanning all generations, say that today’s young adults face more economic challenges than their elders did when they were first starting out. This might be why Ms. Reynolds said that Millennials “distill conflicts and situations own to simple solutions.”

At the same time, fully a third of older Millennials (ages 26 to 33) have a four-year college degree or more —making them the best-educated cohort of young adults in American history. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, young adults today who do not advance beyond high school have been paying a much stiffer penalty — in terms of low wages and high unemployment —than their counterparts did one and two generations ago.

Economic Optimism 

Despite their financial burdens, Millennials are the nation’s most stubborn economic optimists. More than eight-in-10 say they either currently have enough money to lead the lives they want (32 percent) or expect to in the future (53 percent). No other group of adults is nearly as confident, though when Gen Xers were the age Millennials are now, they were equally upbeat about their own economic futures.

The confidence of Millennials in their long-term economic prospects is even more notable in light of another finding from the Pew Research survey: Fully half of Millennials (51 percent) say they do not believe there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they are ready to retire, and an additional 39 percent say the system will only be able to provide them with retirement benefits at reduced levels. Just six percent expect to receive Social Security benefits at levels enjoyed by current retirees.

About six-in-10 Millennials (61 percent) oppose benefit cuts as a way to address the long-term funding problems of Social Security, a view held by about seven-in-10 older adults. There is a much bigger generation gap, however, on the question of whether government should give higher priority to programs that benefit the young or the old. About half (53 percent) of Millennials say the young, compared with 36 percent of Gen Xers and just 28 percent each of Baby Boomers. All of these beliefs could create a political force if the Millennials can rally and show up ‪next Tuesday morning, said Ms. Reynolds.


In response to a battery of questions in the Pew Research survey about how they think of themselves, Millennials are much less inclined than older adults to self-identify as patriotic.

For example, only about half (49 percent) of Millennials say the phrase “a patriotic person” describes them very well — with 35 percent saying this is a “perfect” description. By contrast, 64 percent of Gen Xers, 75 percent of Baby Boomers say this describes them very well. This gap may be due more to their age and stage in life than a characteristic of their generation. When Gen Xers were young, they too lagged behind their elders on this measure in a similarly worded question.

What Is Important to Millennials In This Election 

The Millennial Impact Report, created by research firm Achieve and the Case Foundation, has drawn some important conclusions about how Millennials are responding to the presidential race, and what their attitudes say about their philanthropic motivations.

Here are five top trends that the report found:

  1. Millennials are most interested in education, healthcare and the economy. Education consistently ranked highest for respondents across the three surveys, followed by healthcare, the economy and employment/wages. Supporters of Hillary Clinton indicated the most interest in education. Donald Trump supporters are most interested in the economy, but they’re also interested in healthcare and national security.
  1. Millennials identify as more conservative-leaning than liberal. Half of the respondents identified as conservative compared to 43 percent liberal and seven percent neutral. However, many conservative respondents have political beliefs that reside closer to neutral than to very conservative. Female Millennials identify much more as liberal than do their male counterparts. Older Millennials are more conservative than younger Millennials.
  1. Millennials only somewhat believe that they are activists. When asked how much they agree with this statement – “I am an activist (a person who behaves intentionally to bring about political or social change)” – the average response was just over neutral (54 percent), while the median response for this question was 60 percent. So most Millennials somewhat believe they are activists — male Millennials more than female and conservative-leaning more than liberal-leaning Millennials believe they are activists.
  1. The majority of Millennials have little or no trust that the government will do what is right. More than half of Millennials trust the government only a little or not at all, compared to 44 percent who trust the government some or a lot. One quarter of male Millennial respondents reported trusting the government a lot, compared to only 10 percent of female respondents. Half of conservative-leaning Millennials report trusting the government a lot or some, compared to just 37 percent of liberal respondents.
  1. The number of respondents planning to vote in the presidential election remains strong. Nearly all male Millennial respondents are registered to vote, compared to 83 percent of female Millennials. Similarly, 84 percent of male Millennials are planning to vote in the presidential election, compared to 79 percent of females. More Millennials aged 25-36 are registered and plan to vote than younger ones, while more conservative-leaning Millennials are registered and planning to vote than liberals. Fewer Midwestern Millennials are registered to vote and plan to vote in the presidential election than Millennials in other regions.

In light of the ugly behavior demonstrated by both party leaders contending for the highest office in the land four days from today, Ms. Reynolds said that one of the most powerful ways the Millennial generation could positively influence the future of our government is to keep the pressure on as it relates to simplifying messages and therefore solutions, right up until the final day before the election. “Millennials need and deserve to have their voice heard,” she said. “We all need them now to step into the political arena and shake it up a bit!”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief and Adam Shapiro, Director of Marketing & Brand Management — Hunt Scanlon Media

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