Is 2020 Ready for Gen Z?

With the 2018 midterm elections just barely in the rearview mirror, the nation breathes a collective sigh of relief as we put politics aside until the 2020 campaign kicks off with the first primaries just about a year away.

Kidding…obviously. Even as only a small handful of candidates have specifically declared their intentions, hardly a day goes by without stories about who is up and who is down in the polls. Pundits continue to slice and dice the data from the midterms and even the 2016 election in an effort to predict the future unknown.

One of the biggest unknowns is how the emerging adults of Generation Z[1] (16-21 year-olds) will change the overall composition of the electorate. Because Willow Research is not in the crystal ball business we don’t declare outcomes, but we learned some interesting things based on a post-election survey of 1,000 Americans, age 16 and over, including a representative sample of Gen Z members.


Liberal and engaged

Perhaps some of these findings are expected. Gen Z is the most racially diverse generation, and the least religious. They are less conservative, with 1/3 (33%) identifying as somewhat or very liberal, versus 28% who self-identify as conservative. They are even more liberal than Millennials (25%), a group which is sometimes portrayed as a radical departure from previous generations as they “kill” various industries and entities (chain restaurants, credit cards, stoves, divorce) with their so-called “unusual” behavior and choices.

Liberal-Conservative by generation


Almost two-thirds (62%) of Gen Z disapproves of President Trump—significantly higher than any other generation—and they are also more politically engaged.

Generational Disapproval of Donald Trump


Despite many of them being below voting age, Gen Z has a significantly higher percentage of those who donated to a political campaign in the past two years (24%) than any other age cohort.

Generation Z is also more likely to have attended a march or rally as compared to their elders.


Anxiety is rampant

Eight in ten Generation Z respondents describe themselves as “worriers,” a significantly higher percentage than any other age cohort.


It is a generation to which the world appears somewhat hostile and unforgiving, as evidenced in the American Freshman National Norms survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

In 1985, 18% of college-bound seniors said they “frequently” felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do” during senior year of high school.

That number had increased to 41% by 2016.

This dovetails with research from Johns Hopkins showing that more and more adolescents age 12 to 17 are being diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression.

Our survey, coupled with this other research, indicates that clichés about Gen Z’ers being buried in their phones as they paw through each other’s Instagram feeds are unfounded. They are active and engaged in the world, particularly around issues that matter to them. Retreating to those online spaces seems to be a way to find respite from a world they see as hostile, rather than the direct cause of their alienation.


Inheriting a mess

61% of Gen Z’ers believe the country is on the wrong track, considerably higher than any other generation. And it’s no wonder. Gen Z has grown up with the fallout of the Great Recession, the existential threat of climate change, and active shooter drills in their classrooms for the entirety of their schooling.

One of the reasons they seem to be “worriers” is because they feel the burden to “save the world” from large problems previous generations have let fester.


Even as macroeconomic conditions have improved, they don’t see a rosy future for themselves. They appear to be believers in the “American Dream” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but do not wholly trust that the institutions embraced by previous generations—government, education, the marketplace economy—are up to fulfilling those goals.


Engaged, yes.  Skeptical, absolutely.

Their political attitudes and disapproval of President Trump suggest Gen Z will have a natural affinity for Democratic candidates, but their skepticism over the power and efficacy of legacy institutions makes this potential marriage not so straightforward.

While only 19% of Generation Z say they are likely to vote for Donald Trump in 2020, only 38% say they’re backing the Democratic nominee, and one in five are explicitly open to a third-party candidate.

Generation Z 2020 Presidential election voting


By comparison, fewer than 16% of the other generations say they’re open to a third-party candidate.

It’s well-established that younger voters are less likely to go to the polls, and in fact, Gen Z scores lower on issues of “civic responsibility” than other age cohorts, but our survey suggests that the right candidate with a message emphasizing concrete steps that address their issues of concern could activate this already engaged generation.

Does Generation Z truly want something different from our politics, or are they expressing desires which could be embraced by other age cohorts if candidates were to calibrate their appeals to this youngest generation?

We have almost two more years to find out.

[1] Generation Z is roughly defined by birth between 1995 and 2012. We are focusing here on the emerging adults of Gen Z, those who will be of voting age in the Presidential election of 2020, currently 16-21 years old.

Unless otherwise noted, data in this report come from our recent “Willow Poll,” which explored public perceptions of justice, confidence in institutions, and other social and political issues. The study, conducted in November 2018, is based on interviews with a nationally representative sample of over 1,000 Americans age 16 and over. Quotas were established by age, gender, education, ethnicity, and census region based on the distribution of adults age 16+ according to the US Census Bureau.

Interviewing was conducted online by Lucid, an innovative global survey sample provider.

The study was generously sponsored by Robert Clifford of Clifford Law Offices, one of the nation’s leading trial law firms.

This is just one of many papers and blog posts from Willow Poll that will be published in the coming months. Sign up for our blog to receive future posts and white papers.

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