December 1, 2021
A national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds released today by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School indicates that a majority of young Americans believe that our democracy is “in trouble” or “failing.” While most young Biden voters are satisfied with their vote, President Biden’s job approval (46%) has dropped 13 percentage points among young Americans since the IOP’s Spring 2021 Poll, including a 10-point drop among young Democrats and 14-point drop among Independents.
For over twenty years, the Harvard Public Opinion Project has provided the most comprehensive look at the political opinions, voting trends, and views on public service held by young Americans. The Fall 2021 survey of 2,109 young Americans between 18- and 29-years-old, conducted between October 26 and November 8, includes young Americans’ concerns on their mental health, COVID-19, climate change, and foreign policy.
“In the 2020 election, young Americans proved with their record-shattering turnout that they are a formidable voting bloc and eager to make their voices heard,” said IOP Director Mark Gearan '78. “Our political leaders on both sides of the aisle would benefit tremendously from listening to the concerns that our students and young voters have raised about the challenges facing our democracy and their genuine desire for our parties to find common ground on solutions.”
“After turning out in record numbers in 2020, young Americans are sounding the alarm. When they look at the America they will soon inherit, they see a democracy and climate in peril -- and Washington as more interested in confrontation than compromise,” said IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe. “Despite this, they seem as determined as ever to fight for the change they seek.”
"Right now, young Americans are confronting worries on many fronts. Concerns about our collective future – with regard to democracy, climate change, and mental health – also feel very personal,” said Jing-Jing Shen '23, Student Chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP). “Yet, amidst all of this uncertainty, and especially coming out of the isolation imposed by the pandemic, young people have come to even more deeply value their communities and connections with others, not only in contending with these crises but also in striving for a meaningful life."
Top findings of this survey, the 42nd in the biannual series, include the following:
1. A majority (52%) of young Americans believe that our democracy is either “in trouble,” or “failing”
- Only 7% of young Americans view the United States as a “healthy democracy”; 27% described the nation as a “somewhat functioning democracy,” 39% a “democracy in trouble,” and 13% went so far as to declare the nation a “failed democracy.”
- While Democrats are divided (44% healthy/somewhat functioning and 45% in trouble/failed) about the health of our democracy, 70% of Republicans believe that we are either a democracy in trouble (47%) or failed (23%). A majority (51%) of independent and unaffiliated young Americans also say we are in trouble or failed.
- Overall, 57% of all 18- to 29- year-olds say that it is “very important” that America is a democracy while another 21% say it’s “somewhat important.” Seven percent (7%) say either “not very” or “not at all important,” while 13% don’t know. Seventy-one percent (71%) of college graduates agree that it is “very important” that America is a democracy, but only 51% of those not currently in college, or without a college degree say the same.
2. Young Americans place the chances that they will see a second civil war in their lifetime at 35%; chances that at least one state secedes at 25%
- Nearly half (46%) of young Republicans place the chances of a second civil war at 50% or higher, compared to 32% of Democrats, and 38% of independent and unaffiliated voters. Level of education (27% among college students and those with degrees compared to 47% for others) and whether young people live in urban (33%), suburban (33%), rural (48%) or small town (51%) environments are all significant predictors.
- Similar patterns hold for those who think secession is likely. Overall, 25% rate the chances at 50% or greater.
3. Half of young Americans say they’re a different person because of Covid-19
- Fifty percent (50%) of 18- to- 29-year-olds say that Covid-19 has changed them -- 14% say they have become a very different person while 37% say they are somewhat of a different person. Females (61% different) are far more likely than males (40%) to say they have changed. Politically, Democrats (60%) are more likely than Republicans (39%) to say Covid-19 has impacted them in this way.
- Overall, 51% say that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their life. One-third (33%) say that the coronavirus has not had a major impact one way or the other, while 15% say the effect Covid-19 had on them was positive. Unlike most other issues in this survey, there was no partisan divide: 51% of Democrats, 51% of Republicans, and 52% of independents say that the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their life.
4. Biden approval drops to 46% among young Americans; a majority of youth disapprove of the way President Biden, Democrats, and Republicans in Congress are handling their jobs
- Among young Democrats, President Biden’s job approval stands at 75% (-10 since Spring 2021), and it is 39% among independents (-14), and 9% among Republicans (-13).
- President Biden receives the highest approval rating for his handling of the Coronavirus (51% approve), his lowest rating comes from his handling of gun violence (34%).
- Still, 78% of those who voted for Biden in 2020 say they are satisfied with their vote.
- Forty-six percent (46%) also view President Biden favorably and 44% unfavorably; the favorability ratings of others included in the survey are: Bernie Sanders at 46% favorable / 34% unfavorable; Kamala Harris 38% favorable / 41% unfavorable; Nancy Pelosi 26% favorable / 48% unfavorable; Donald Trump, 30% favorable / 63% unfavorable.
5. More than half (51%) of young Americans report having felt down, depressed, and hopeless -- and 25% have had thoughts of self-harm -- at least several times in the last two weeks
- In addition to the majority of youth who express depressive symptoms, and the 25% who express thoughts of self-harm, we also found that a significant number of young Americans are bothered by traits associated with generalized anxiety disorder.
- 38% of young Americans report feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge in the last two weeks
- 36% have been worrying too much about different things
- 32% have been easily annoyed or irritable
- 30% have had trouble relaxing
- 22% report feeling afraid as if something awful might happen
- 20% have not been able to stop or control worrying
- 16% have been so restless that it is hard to sit still
- School or work (34%), personal relationships (29%), self-image (27%), economic concerns (25%), and the coronavirus (24%) are the five most popular responses given when asked about the impact on mental health. Politics and social media each were cited by 17% of survey respondents. Young females (22% compared to 13% for males) were significantly more likely to cite social media as a problem; young people living in the suburbs (22%) were more likely than others to say the same.
- Additionally, young Americans believe that they are more worried about the country’s future than their parents. We found that 34% believe that they are more concerned than their parents, and only 19% note they feel less concerned. Slightly more than a third (35%) indicate they think about the country in the same way, while 11% don’t know.
6. A majority (56%) of young Americans expect climate change to impact their future decisions -- and nearly half (45%) already see its local effects
One of the greatest predictors of partisanship is how young Americans view the impacts of climate change: 60% of Democrats, but only 23% of Republicans, say climate change has already impacted their local community; 74% of Democrats say that it will impact future decisions they make; less than one-third (32%) of young Republicans say the same.
When controlling for geography/location, Democrats and Republicans still view the effects of climate differently. Among those living in suburbs, 62% of Democrats and 25% of Republicans say climate change has already impacted their local community; the same pattern holds for young people living in urban (65% Democrat, 38% Republican), rural (49% Democrat, 16% Republican), and small town (49% Democrat, 16% Republican) America.
Despite partisan views about its current impact, large numbers of Democrats (71%) and Republicans (52%) believe that individual actions like “changing behavior lifestyle choices can be effective means to address climate change.
7. More than half of young Americans believe that the federal government is not doing enough to address climate change
A solid majority (55%) of young Americans believe the U.S. government is not doing enough to address climate change, including 68% of college graduates, 56% of college students, and 50% of those without a college degree. More than seven-in-ten (71%) Democrats don’t think the government is doing enough, compared to 27% of Republicans, and 56% of independents. Fourteen percent (14%) say that the government is doing “too much to address climate change,” while 12 percent think it is “just about the right amount.”
Among a list of nine adjectives offered, “worried” was the most common word (selected by 54%) used to describe young Americans’ feelings about climate change. This was followed by anxious (41%), sad (29%), hopeless (23%), uninterested (22%), angry (21%), hopeful (20%), over-hyped (15%), and inspired (8%).
8. Strengthening the economy, uniting the country, and improving health care are viewed as keys to a successful presidency in the eyes of young Americans
- More than 40% of young Americans prioritize these three issues from a list that also included climate change, income inequality, education, social justice, and improving America’s standing in the world.
- Overall, one-third (33%) say the Biden administration is on its way to a successful presidency, 38% say it’s off on the wrong track -- while 28% are unsure at this time.
9. By a margin of more than 2-to-1, young Americans value compromise over confrontation
- A plurality across every major subgroup measured preferred that “Elected officials meet in the middle –– at the expense of my preferred policy priorities,” compared to “Elected officials pursue my preferred policy priorities –– at the expense of compromise.
- Democrats agreed with the sentiment of meeting “in the middle,” 49% to 26% and Republicans agreed 45% to 23%. Self-described liberals agreed, 43% to 31%, conservatives 44% to 21%.
10. American Exceptionalism is a highly divisive issue among young Americans, less than one-third believe that “America is the greatest country in the world”
- Overall, half of young Americans believe that there are “other nations as great or greater than America,” while 31% say that America is the greatest country -- with nearly a fifth (18%) saying they don’t know.
- The views of Democrats and Republicans are inverted with 21% of Democrats saying America is the greatest country and 64% saying other nations are as great or greater; 62% of Republicans believe that America is the greatest with 24% saying other nations are as great or greater.
- When young Americans are asked what they think the primary motivation of U.S. foreign policy should be, we found that “promoting international peace and human rights” to be the top choice (27%), followed by ensuring U.S. national security (18%), addressing climate change (12%), and promoting U.S. economic interests (11%).
- The priorities of young Americans are at odds with what they believe current foreign policy priorities are: 19% cited economic interests as the top driver of U.S. policy abroad, followed by 12% who said ensuring our national security, and 10% who said promoting international peace and human rights.
- Nine months into the Biden Administration, 41% reported that the U.S. standing on the world stage improved, 34% say it worsened, while 24% don’t see it changing.
This poll of 2,109 18- to 29- year-olds was organized with undergraduate students from the Harvard Public Opinion Project (HPOP) and supervised by John Della Volpe. Data were collected by Ipsos Public Affairs using the KnowledgePanel Calibration approach. In this approach, the calibrating sample was provided by the KnowledgePanel probability-based sample source (n=1,050), while the sample to be calibrated was provided by non-probability, opt-in web panel sample sources (n=1,059). Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish between October 26 and November 8, 2021. The target population for this survey is US residents between the ages of 18 and 29. Data are weighted to reflect population estimates based on age-group, race, Hispanic ethnicity, educational attainment, household income, urbanicity, and geographic region of residence. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.08%.