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Teaching Adolesence

Young Adult Voters: Tuned in, but Turned Off?

People often lament that Millennials (today’s 18- to 35-year-olds) are disengaged and disconnected from political life. It is estimated that less than half of Millennials voted in the 2012 presidential election, compared to baby boomers who vote at high rates. Millennials today, who make up 31 percent of the American electorate, can be a powerful voting bloc, and for many, November 8th will be their first chance to vote in a presidential election. According to the research institute CIRCLE, if young adults show up to vote, they will significantly impact the outcome of the election, especially in swing states like Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Iowa.

Many of today’s millennials in the U.S. have come of age in an era of reality TV, social media, and 24-hour access to news. Their teen and early young adult life has been shaped by severe economic recession and rebound, the expansion of LGBTQ rights, the first African American president, increased attention to gun violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is safe to say that today’s young adults have come of age in a pivotal historical time. These experiences give them fresh perspectives, hopes, and fears that are unique to their generation and may influence their political views.

Despite common beliefs that young adults are disengaged, they appear to be more tuned in to politics than they get credit for. A Seattle based study surveyed nearly 600 18 to 25-year-old eligible voters in June 2016 and found remarkably high levels of political engagement:

  • 64 percent reported moderate to high interest in politics.
  • 76 percent said they were quite a bit or very likely to vote in November.
  • 84 percent think about social problems of the nation or world and how to solve them sometimes or quite often.
  • 69 percent discuss politics with friends occasionally or frequently.

The Monitoring the Future Study tells a similar story of substantial engagement among young adults. Among a nationally representative group of over 2,000 18-year-olds in 2014, 65 percent reported some to great interest in politics, 81 percent planned to vote, and 54 percent believed that voting has a major impact on how the country is run.

In the midst of all the rancor and vitriol around this election, the candidates may have lost sight of issues that are important to young adults. While it would be easy for the so called “selfie” generation to be focused on issues relevant to their own daily lives, it is clear that millennials are interested in larger global and social issues. Many of the issues of greatest importance to the young adults we surveyed in Seattle were not prioritized in debates or speeches this election cycle.

Top 5 issues important to 18 to 25 year olds based on Seattle survey (% endorsing very or extremely interested):

  1. Education (72%)
  2. The environment/climate change (66%)
  3. Racial equity (66%)
  4. National health care (65%)
  5. Poverty (63%)

Moreover, a recent national poll of millennials reveals that although most are paying attention to the presidential election, 70 percent have not been contacted at all by a presidential campaign. This oversight could have serious consequences for turnout, as past research shows that campaign outreach increases the likelihood that young people will actually vote. With little attention to issues of interest to young adults and little outreach to this age group, candidates may be missing a major opportunity to engage young voters.

A high youth voter turnout on November 8th is certainly not a guarantee. Research shows that intentions to vote do not always translate into actual voting. There is potential for an entire generation to feel disenfranchised, misunderstood and not heard in the aftermath of this election. Indeed, young adults’ trust in the government is at its lowest point this century, according to national Monitoring the Future data, and the American Psychological Association has recently documented that stress is up due to the election, especially for millennials. So, although young adults are tuned into the election and other social and political issues, they may be turned off from voting this cycle.

Perhaps we have misjudged the “selfie” generation in terms of their interests and their power as a voting bloc. As researchers, parents, and members of society, we are hopeful that millennials can usher in a national discourse that focuses on key national and global social issues. It is time for baby boomers and older generations to stop counting out millennials and start paying attention to how and why they engage in politics.


Laura Wray Lake is an assistant professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Christine M. Lee is a research professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and her research on young adults’ social role transitions in Seattle is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Devon Alisa Abdallah is a research project manager at the University of Washington. The Monitoring the Future Study is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Image by Innovated Captures

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