Young voters could tip the scales in 2016. Here’s what drives their political activity.

Millennials worry about inequality, but don’t frame it in economic terms.

Indications that Millennial voters could sway key states in the 2016 election make the question of what drives politically active young people particularly salient for candidates struggling to win them over. Researchers Ariadne Vromen at the University of Sydney, Michael Xenos at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Brian Loader at the University of York, set out to determine which political issues young people care about, how Millennials perceive economic inequality, and how social media informs political engagement. We asked them to explain their results and their implications for 2016.

ResearchGate: What motivated you to study young people’s political engagement and perspectives on inequality?

Ariadne Vromen and Michael Xenos: We recently completed a comparative research project on whether heightened social media use reduced political inequality in the US, Australia, and Great Britain. That is, among this generation of networked young citizens, do traditional indicators of who is the most politically engaged still dominate? Is it only the voices of the wealthiest, most educated, and most politically interested who are active in politics? The results were a qualified no: that social media plays an equalizing role, providing young people with both information and spaces to become politically engaged. However, there is still a gulf between those already interested and paying attention to politics, and those who are not.

To try and explain some of these differences among young people we asked them what political issues are important to them and need political attention, also looking at how they recognized and understood inequality in their societies. In all three countries, there is a burgeoning debate about how this will be the first generation to go backwards economically, and in the USA and UK, young people were at the forefront of the effects of the global financial crisis. We suspected that their understandings of inequality would shape their desire or not to become engaged in political action for social change.

RG: What does “inequality” mean to young Americans?

Vromen and Xenos: Understanding inequality is complicated. We found in our survey that a majority of young Americans thought the the economy was the most pressing issue that needed political attention. Yet when we dug deeper, we found young people don’t primarily explain a need for “equality” in economic terms, instead tending to focus on identity issues and ongoing inequities based on gender, sexuality, and race. We did ask a follow-up question asking young people about their attitudes towards differences between the rich and poor. While some noted an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots in society and attributed this to larger societal forces, the dominant view was that through hard work and resilience any young person was capable of building better economic circumstances for themselves.

RG: What determines how young Americans perceive inequality? 

Vromen and Xenos: It was largely true that their own socio-economic circumstances seemed to shape young people’s attitudes towards social and economic mobility. The more privileged were most likely to suggest hard work guaranteed mobility, while the less privileged had a pragmatic understanding of the constraints of economic circumstances while simultaneously believing in the virtues of hard work.

RG: Is this understanding reflected in movements like Black Lives Matter? If so, how?

Vromen and Xenos: Our research was undertaken before the emergence of this social movement, but the young people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement appear to demonstrate many of the same patterns we have seen in our data. Young activists are articulate about long-term, identity-based inequities and comfortable advocating for large-scale social change. Furthermore, as with young people interested in many social issues, the sense in which social media are intricately woven into their everyday lives provides a wealth of affordances for raising awareness and a host of movement building tasks.

RG: Do young Americans’ views differ from those of their counterparts elsewhere in the world?

Vromen and Xenos: Overall our research found strong similarities among young people in the three countries we studied, particularly when it came to their levels of political engagement and their use of social media for politics. The main differences we noted were in the issue agendas that they had. For example, a majority of young Americans noted that economy was an important issue needing political attention; a near majority of young Britons felt the same. Yet issues of immigration, work, and welfare were also clustered highly as important to young Britons. Health and same-sex marriage were important to young Americans, but well behind their concern for the economy. Young Australians did not have a dominant issue they were concerned about, with the five core issues each rated roughly equally in terms of importance. This demonstrates that the broader political context matters for understanding the issue agendas that young people bring to their political engagement.

Results from the researchers' study: Beyond lifestyle politics in a time of crisis?: comparing young peoples’ issue agendas and views on inequality.


RG: What are the implications for young Americans’ political engagement?

Vromen and Xenos: Young people engage in politics based on the issues that matter in their lives. This engagement can take a variety of forms, from keenly consuming news and political information, debating with friends on social media, to donating money or time to election campaigns or protest events. Our research suggests that this pluralism in actions will continue, but also that we should pay much careful attention to how both economic issues and increasing inequality of all kinds are responded to by young Americans.

RG: Is there anything presidential candidates can do to appeal to young people in particular?

Vromen and Xenos: Appealing to young people as a distinct group is no different from deliberate efforts to court any other particular group of potential voters. Young people have a keen sense for authenticity, however, which means that clunkiness or any apparent lack of sincerity on social media in particular carries a considerable risk of backfire. All voters want to feel that their concerns are being heard and their issue agendas are being addressed. It remains a challenge for all presidential candidates to realize this, and move beyond a broadcast-only mode of campaigning.

RG: Do young voters care about different issues than older ones do?

Vromen and Xenos: Most evidence suggests that issue agendas are fairly common across age-groups with little variation. But there are obvious differences in how young voters approach issues like the availability of jobs and the quality of the educational system. As we found in our research, issues like these have a heightened sense of immediacy for young people, as well as the potential to affect their lives for considerably more time than they will for older voters.

RG: Your study was published before the 2016 primaries began. What’s your take on young Americans’ political activity in the last few months of the election cycle?

Vromen and Xenos: Our research shows that engaging with national elections through social media can be a huge part of how young people discover themselves politically and form political identities. The current cycle presents a rich opportunity for watching a new crop of young voters go through these formative experiences under an extremely unique set of political circumstances and potentially polarizing debates and candidates. It will be very interesting to see whether there will be any noticeable long-term effects of this in the years to come.

Photo courtesy of Alex Hanson.