Last week I received two different questions (on the same day) about the political behavior of college-age individuals and how it has changed over time. One of my colleagues asked if younger people tend to participate more or less than they did in previous generations and another asked if younger people had become more or less conservative over the past few decades. So I put the question to my GOV 336 students. This semester they’re learning how to analyze public opinion survey data to answer interesting questions about politics. Rather than do the work myself, I offered them extra credit if they could come up with a good answer to these questions. Their results?
First: college-age people have shown no consistent change in voting rates from the 1970s to now. They turn out somewhere between 45-60% of the time, depending on the election, and there’s no consistent upward or downward trend over the years. However, there has been a slight drop in “interest” in politics: young people of today are about 5-10% less likely than people in the 1970s to say that they feel that their vote matters or that they’re interested in politics or that they participate in political campaigns.
Second: there is no consistent evidence that young people of today are any more or less conservative than they were in the 1970s. Younger people were about 5-10% more likely to say that they were conservative in the 1980s (Reagan years) but that went back down in the 1990s and 2000s to 1970s levels.
Bottom line: young people of today aren’t appreciably different from young people of the 1970s, at least in terms of ideology and voter-turnout. They’re just slightly more cynical toward the political system.
Jennifer Hormell, Jordan Shewmaker, CJ Donald, Tyler Sanderson, and Malcolm Richerson contributed to this report.