College Students Express Anxiety About the Economy

Mar 09, 2010

Harvard's Institute of Politics (IOP) just released the 17th edition of their 'Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service.' College students diverged from other 18- to 29-year-olds on some measures, but shared the Millennials' concerns about the economy and future job prospects.

Students Rally

Politics and the Economy: Young Adults Weigh In

With the economy struggling and national politics in flux, everybody's looking to the Millennial Generation (currently defined as 18 to 29 year olds) to try to see what our future may hold. The Harvard University Institute of Politics began their not-quite-semi-annual 'Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service' back in 2000, and have continuously updated and re-published the survey over the last decade to offer the latest data on civic attitudes among young adults.

Harvard's 'Young Americans' survey began as a national survey of 18-24 year old undergraduates. In 2006 they expanded the survey to include young adults who were not in college, and in 2009 they increased the age range to 18-29 in order to capture the full Millennial Generation. For the latest report, they surveyed over 3,000 18- to 29-year-olds from late January through late February, 2010. The sample was split evenly between male and female, and included a broad range of ethnicities. The political profiles of the sample were also relatively diverse: 38% self-identified as liberal, 27% as moderate and 35% as conservative. In order to establish some social context, the report reminds us that the hottest political issue during the survey was the health care debate, and other popular topics included the military's 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy and Sarah Palin's CPAC speech.

Debating the Issues

The educational profile of participants in the current survey broke down like this:

  • 56% of 18 to 29-year-olds are not enrolled in college or university
  • 11% are enrolled in a 2-year college, 22% in a 4-year college, 4% in graduate school, 1% in a business or professional school and 2% are not enrolled by are taking at least one class
  • 78% of college students attend a public institution and 21% attend a private one
  • 53% of students attend college in an urban area, 27% in a suburb and 20% in a small town or rural area

Harvard's decision to broaden the scope of the survey in 2006 allowed them to generalize their results to the whole population while including a side-by-side comparison of college students and their non-student peers on many of the measures. The biggest thing that students share with their peers is an intense anxiety about the economy. Sixty-percent of Millennials are concerned about their ability to meet their current bills and financial obligations and 59% are worried about being able to afford a place to live. Almost half of those who are currently in the workplace are afraid that they'll lose their job, and this fear is echoed in college students' anxiety about their future after graduation - 84% indicated that finding a job will be 'very difficult.' Students are also worried about their ability to keep paying for college, with 45% of 4-year college students and 64% of community colleges expressing concern about staying in school.

Volunteer Petition

College students differed the most from their peers on their attitudes toward community service and political participation. Although they're more likely to agree that elected officials don't share their priorities, 46% of college students still feel that running for political office is an honorable thing to do, as compared to only 35% of their peers. And college students don't just support political participation - they're also more politically active. They're more likely to have attended a rally, volunteered for or donated to a political campaign, signed an online petition, written a letter or email advocating a political position or contributed to an online discussion or blog advocating a political position. College students are also more likely to support community service (81% compared to 70%) and more likely to have engaged in community service in the past year (54% compared to 35%).

In order to get a more specific take on young adults' political participation, the survey also asked about the upcoming midterm elections and the respective job performances of President Obama and Congress. Overall, 56% of 18- to 29-year-olds approve of the President's performance, and he has a slightly higher approval rating (60%) among college students. Congress didn't do as well - 42% of respondents approve of Congressional Democrats' performance, and only 32% approve of Congressional Republicans' job performance. The report also notes another sign that young adults are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Washington: the number of self-identified Independent voters increased six percentage points since November 2009 when they last performed the survey.

Unfortunately, expected participation in the upcoming midterm elections is low for the whole group (31%) and only marginally higher for college students (38%). The political affiliations of those who indicated that they will 'definitely be voting in November' suggests that there is some complacency among liberal youth - young Republicans are statistically more likely to vote in the midterm elections, as are respondents who indicated that they voted for John McCain in 2008.

Students on National Issues

From the Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service: 17th Edition, page 9.

The survey also explored young adults' views on specific political issues with an open-ended question asking participants to identify the issues that concern them the most. Two issues overwhelmingly dominated the responses: the economy and healthcare. National security (including the wars), education and the environment trailed far behind.

When asked how they felt about the overall direction the U.S. is currently taking, the response was largely negative. Thirty-six percent felt that we're on the wrong track, 23% felt that we're going in the right direction and 40% were unsure.

Republicans and Democrats

New Ideologies

Using data from issues and values questions dating all the way back to the 2004 survey, the IOP outline four distinct ideological groups that have emerged among the Millennials. Two mirror the traditional progressive / conservative dichotomy of American politics, but the other two are distinct: one shows qualities that fall into both camps, and the other prefers to abstain from it all.

New Progressives

Seventeen percent of the sample were identified as New Progressives. This group tends to support President Obama and be more inclined toward government involvement in things like curbing climate change and providing the population with basic necessities like healthcare, food and shelter. They also typically feel that the opinions of other countries should be considered in American foreign policy decisions. Demographically, the New Progressives are mostly Democrats or Independents, primarily white and more likely to be from the West Coast.

New Conservatives

The 13% of the sample labeled New Conservatives look more like the 'children of Reagan's America.' They tend to be much more concerned about the moral direction of the country, are typically anti-homosexuality and believe that religious values should play a greater role in government. They oppose universal healthcare and government regulation of climate change and strongly disagree with the idea that government spending will increase economic growth. They also typically believe that the military should intervene in other countries in order to protect the U.S. from hostile forces. Demographically, the New Conservatives are overwhelmingly Republican, white and male, and they're primarily from the South.

New Religious

Twenty percent of 18 to 29-year-olds fall into the New Religious category. Like the 'old religious,' they share some social beliefs with the New Progressives, such as protecting the environment and providing basic necessities to those in need, and others with the New Conservatives, such as the belief that homosexuality is morally wrong. What distinguishes them from traditional religious politics is their support for a strong and aggressive military. Although they don't align with a single political party, the majority of the New Religious supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election and currently have a higher-than-average approval rating for the President. They're more racially diverse than the New Progressives and New Conservatives, including 27% African American individuals and 20% Hispanic, and are disproportionately from the South.

New Passives

Troublingly, the largest segment of the population - 40% - is also the least engaged. The New Passives listed themselves as neutral on almost every ideological question in the survey, and 45% of them replied 'not sure' when asked how they felt about the current direction the country is taking. The majority of them consider themselves Independents, and they're split almost evenly between self-identified liberals, moderates and conservatives. The New Passives are ethnically diverse, but have the highest proportion of Hispanics who prefer to speak Spanish, a group that is also less likely to vote or volunteer than all other segments of the young adult population.


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