Something unusual appears to be happening among young Americans. “For much of the past two decades,” the Survey Center on American Life recently noted, “young women and men have had similar political profiles. But the ideological differences between them grew rapidly over the past few years as young women became increasingly liberal.” The Survey Center, a project of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), cited Gallup polling that shows 44 percent of young women aged 18 to 29 considering themselves “liberal” last year, compared to only 25 percent of men in the same age range—a major change from 30 percent of young women and 27 percent of young men considering themselves liberal a decade earlier. What’s causing this political divergence?

Daniel Cox is a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at AEI who co-authored the Survey Center’s recent report on the “growing gender divide in American life.” Cox says the dramatic increase in progressive politics among American women of Generation Z, the cohort born between 1997 and 2012, comes out of a series of trends, including fewer young women being married than in previous generations and more of them being more formally educated and religiously unaffiliated. Many of these young women were affected by the #MeToo movement, Cox says, while spending formative adult years during the presidency of Donald Trump, whom a strikingly high ratio of them disliked. As Generation Z becomes more politically engaged in the coming years, Cox sees the potential for their convictions to alter U.S. political priorities. It’s a question, though—given the prominence of disillusionment, disconnection, frustration, and pessimism in their attitudes about American political life.


Graham Vyse: What are the bigger political trends you’re seeing across Generation Z in America?

Daniel Cox: To understand how Gen Z is approaching politics differently than older U.S. generations do, we need to understand how members of this generation were raised. Many of their parents emphasized individual achievement, education, and enrichment as primary goals for their children. At the same time, compared with previous generations, Gen Z has experienced less in the way of traditional institutions like organized religion in their childhood—whether that would be regular participation in worship services or Sunday school, or even saying prayers with their families. In part, this shift has been driven by changes in parenting priorities; but it’s also driven by the fact that Gen Z is more likely to be raised by parents with different religious backgrounds, blended families that include children from previous marriages, or single parents, all of which tend to have lower levels of religious involvement.

Politically, climate change is important to Get Z. Gun policy is important. LGBTQ issues are important. I expect abortion to become tremendously important. Yet there isn’t one preeminent, animating political issue for this generation. What’s happened instead is that political identity has become increasingly central to people in defining who they are. It’s become a stand-in for character or even personality. That’s unfortunate in some ways. It leads Americans to be more politically segregated and to shut down political conversations based on the belief that knowing someone’s politics means you know what you need to about their whole life story and whether they’re part of your good tribe or not. We’re on track to become even more politically segregated—more politically polarized—and I believe the decline of institutions and the unraveling of our civic life are playing important roles in that process.

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Vyse: How does this new prominence of political identity relate to the broader political trends you’re seeing?

Cox: Part of what’s going on is that younger Americans’ politics are becoming more closely connected with their other demographic attributes. The political scientist Lilliana Mason notes that people in the U.S. increasingly live with these “super identities”—their political, religious, racial, ethnic, and gender identities all combining and moving them in the same direction. You’re not merely a liberal. You’re an atheist, Jewish, bisexual liberal—and all those identities interact and reinforce one another.

So political identity is becoming more important, but it’s also becoming increasingly aligned with other demographic characteristics and even lifestyle choices. If you’re Christian today, there is a much higher probability that you are a conservative or a Republican; if you’re an atheist, odds are you’re liberal or a Democrat. Consumer behavior has become more politicized as well. Liberals are much more likely to live near a Whole Foods, while conservatives are more apt to show up at Cracker Barrel. What this means practically is that Americans’ political identities have become much more than the sums of our views on various political issues—and that, increasingly, it’s difficult to separate politics from other aspects of our lives.

Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer places in American life where we can challenge our own beliefs or compromise with people whose beliefs are different from ours. It makes democratic society difficult. More and more, Republicans and Democrats view each other not just as people with different ideas about the size and scope of government—but as threatening.

There are fewer and fewer places in American life where we can challenge our own beliefs or compromise with people whose beliefs are different from ours. It makes democratic society difficult. More and more, Republicans and Democrats view each other not just as people with different ideas about the size and scope of government—but as threatening.

Vyse: The more striking political shifts you’re seeing are among young women. What’s driving that?

Cox: A few different social forces are responsible together. The first is that fewer Americans are getting married early in life, now versus 20 years ago. Roughly one in three women under the age of 30 was married back then; today it’s just 10 or 12 percent of women. Contemporary research shows that single straight women tend to feel connected to other women; it’s a phenomenon known as “linked fate,” and one of its effects is women supporting more progressive policy interventions that address gender-based inequities, such as pay gaps, and progressive candidates. Married straight women, however, tend to feel more connected to their husbands, and to their interests, and so end up tending to have lower support for such progressive policy interventions and higher support for conservative candidates.

The second factor is education: In recent decades, the educational attainment of American women far outpaced that of men. American colleges and universities now enroll roughly three women for every two men. It’s the largest gender gap in the history of higher education, and all indications are that it's becoming wider. Over the past couple of election cycles, we’ve also seen college-educated Americans move to the left, especially on cultural issues. We’re not only seeing the impact of college students being exposed to progressive ideas on campus; we’re also seeing a social impact from attending college. Having a four-year college degree increases the chances that you’ll go to work in or near a city and work with other politically left-of-center college graduates. Your social circle will include more people like that.

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The third factor is the decline in religious affiliation in the U.S.: The extent to which young American women are becoming unaffiliated religiously is really notable. Gallup found that nearly 40 percent of young women in the U.S. today are unaffiliated religiously, compared to about 21 percent of the American public overall. That’s significant, even as these women are more religiously affiliated than young men, who are more likely to be atheists and less connected to religious institutions. A bunch of research shows that religiously unaffiliated people tend to be more liberal, particularly on cultural questions like same-sex marriage or abortion.

The fourth factor is changing patterns of sexual and gender identities in America. We did a poll just a couple of weeks ago that found women are generally more fluid than men in how they think about physical attraction, and that’s not a new phenomenon. We found that close to half of women said they weren’t exclusively attracted to men. Older women are much more likely to say they’re only attracted to men, and young men are much more binary than young women in their physical attraction—more likely to be attracted only to women or only to men. Gallup found that roughly one in five members of Gen Z in the U.S. identifies as LGBTQ. These identities correlate strongly with political identities. In fact, some research shows that among some young Americans, LGBTQ identity didn’t always align with their sexual preferences or feelings of physical attraction. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that for some young people identifying as LGBTQ is an expression of support or affirmation.

Among some young Americans, LGBTQ identity didn’t always align with their sexual preferences or feelings of physical attraction. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that for some young people identifying as LGBTQ is an expression of support or affirmation.

The fifth factor is that the #MeToo movement catalyzed a major shift in the American public’s understanding of sexual misconduct—and a recognition of the ubiquity of that misconduct. We have found, as others have found, that something like 80 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives. The #MeToo movement was particularly transformative for young women’s politics. Young women are much more likely to support women in leadership roles—not just in politics but in the workplace, too. Donald Trump embodied a lot of what young women in particular disliked about men in power—the mistreatment, the belittlement. When we were conducting surveys on politics, dating, and relationships, we found again and again that women who said their dislike of Trump wasn’t about politics but rather about his character and treatment of other people, particularly his treatment of women and racial and ethnic minorities.

Vyse: The number of young U.S. men describing themselves as liberal has stayed relatively consistent in recent decades. What’s happening with them?

Cox: In many ways, young men are doing less well in life than young women in America. Young men tend not to have as much social support. They’re less likely to go to college. They’re more likely to live at home. Many of them believe that neither political party is doing much to help them. On the right, much more than on the left, you hear the idea that society is disadvantaging them.

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Today’s young men are more liberal than their elders on a lot of cultural questions, including premarital sex and same-sex marriage, and they’re more likely to have friends or family members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But when it comes to questions about the role and size of government in the economy, men, including young men, are less inclined to favor intervention than women are. It’s an issue area where the attitudinal differences between men and women are growing.

It’s always important to remember—when thinking about all of this—that there are crucial demographic divisions in the U.S. within these age cohorts. Young white men have very different political beliefs than young African-American men or young Hispanic men. In general, I think there’s more pessimism among young men about whether the government can really help them. Young men and young women in the U.S. both tend to want their government to do more—on gun control, on climate change, on reducing economic inequality—but there’s a profound pessimism among them, in ways we didn’t see in earlier generations, about the government’s ability to do anything. That has to do with political polarization and congressional gridlock; the government hasn’t shown that it’s up to handling a lot of these issues. But the pessimism is stronger among young men than young women. Young men are more likely to think no one’s on their side.

The #MeToo movement was particularly transformative for young women’s politics. Young women are much more likely to support women in leadership roles—not just in politics but in the workplace, too. Donald Trump embodied a lot of what young women in particular disliked about men in power.

Vyse: Why do you call Gen Z the “loneliest generation”?

Cox: For a while now in America, young people have been more lonely than older people—more prone to expressing feelings of social isolation. So much of how young people are parented in the U.S.—and the priorities that are foisted on them—contributes to their loneliness. Particularly in middle-class and upper-middle-class families, parents feel anxious and insecure about the future of their children, so they push them to engage in achievement-based activities—sports, the arts—which help them build up a skill set that makes them marketable for college or a career. The downside of that is obvious: These young people aren’t spending as much time developing strong social networks. They’re not spending as much time connected to institutions like religion or neighborhood groups, going to church barbecues or block parties. As a result, they have weaker social ties.

There was an article in The Atlantic earlier this year documenting the tendency of American parents to prioritize distinctiveness in naming their children. Over the past 60 years, there's been this profound shift in the U.S.: It used to be that you wanted to name your kid after someone you knew—a family member or someone famous—but now the goal is to pick a very uncommon name so your child can stand out. If everyone tries to be unique, it becomes a lot more difficult to downplay differences and come together. Belonging to a group means you have to learn the norms and embrace the values of that organization, but if you’re constantly told that it’s most important to be distinctive—and to influence others—that’s not going to help you navigate the loneliest parts of growing up.

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Americans prize individuality today in a way that we didn’t in the not-too-distant past. If you look at polls that have asked, What’s the most important part of your identity? young people are much more likely to mention their educational or professional achievements as the critical markers of who they are. In past generations, that wasn’t the case. A lot of teenagers say they value achievement because they think their parents do.

Vyse: How is loneliness shaping the politics of Gen Z in America?

Cox: There’s obviously a multitude of negative physical and psychological consequences of being lonely, and people who are lonely are probably going to be less active in politics. In extreme cases, loneliness results in anti-social behavior—not just outright violence but a general lack of participation in civil society, marriage, and community life. My concern would be that loneliness in Gen Z will lead to apathy and even political nihilism over time. Still, it’s remarkable meanwhile that, despite lower engagement in civic and religious organizations, young people still are participating in politics at reasonable levels, at least by historical standards.

Vyse: Can you think of any political phenomena in the U.S. over the last decade that might have been hard to understand at the time but, in retrospect, make more sense in light of these Gen Z trends?

Cox: One of the profound shifts we’ve seen in American politics is the Democratic Party's embrace of culture-war issues, which used to be more associated with the Republicans. I think the party’s focus on those issues, often at the expense of economic issues, is partially a result of changing Democratic demography. The party now has a disproportionate number of college-educated women in its ranks, and they’re having a significant impact on the party’s priories. In the early ‘90s, roughly one in 10 Democrats was a college-educated woman. By 2021, it was close to one in three.

If everyone tries to be unique, it becomes a lot more difficult to downplay differences and come together. Belonging to a group means you have to learn the norms and embrace the values of that organization, but if you’re constantly told that it’s most important to be distinctive—and to influence others—that’s not going to help you navigate the loneliest parts of growing up.

Vyse: How do you see American politicians and activists adapting to engage Gen Z?

Cox: You know, the people who understand these new generations best are market researchers—companies trying to attract young people as customers or future employees. There’s significant evidence of career ambition among the youngest generation, but we’re also in the midst of a reassessment of the centrality of work in our lives. We talk about “work-life balance,” but a lot of Gen Z wants “life-work balance.” That’s going to change how young people engage with their employers and what kind of commitments they’re willing to make as part of their jobs. Politicians will probably ignore this cohort for a while, as young people are traditionally less engaged in politics.

One trend I’ll be following is how younger Republicans in the U.S. think about issues of diversity and American identity—what it means to be American. One of the most promising recent developments, in my opinion, is the fact that Hispanic Americans appeared to be supporting Republicans in far greater numbers than people expected. I don’t mean to be political when I say that’s promising; it’s that we don’t want racialized parties—a party for white people and a party for everybody else. I find it hopeful to see that there are constituencies that the parties have to compete over. As the United States becomes more diverse, there's going to be a greater recognition that very few constituencies belong to either party.

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Another important trend is how secularization is affecting the Republican Party, particularly younger Republicans. Conservative Christians are still the party’s largest constituency—if you can call them a single constituency—in the party, but there’s a growing number of folks, particularly among the young, who have less traditional ideas about sex and sexuality, even if they’re religious. They’re more tolerant of LGBTQ policies and have LGBTQ friends. I’m not saying they’ll be open to every progressive idea about sex and sexuality, but they’re going to come at these issues differently. When young people look around their classrooms or their sports fields or the bars where they’re hanging out, they’re looking at a different demographic reality.

Another way, still, that we might anticipate Gen Z changing American politics is that they aren’t going to feel as compelled as previous generations to operate through traditional channels. They may be less inclined to write to members of Congress, but they’ll engage with them on social media, or share political videos on YouTube or TikTok. New technologies are meanwhile offering new ways to engage in politics—as with a group now going after the ad revenue streams of media outlets trafficking in misinformation. There’s a sense among Gen Z that if you can dream it, you can do it. Now, that can be scary for some of the institutional defenders and the older guard, but the political system needs to be responsive. This new generation is going to demand it—whether on the issue of gun violence or climate change or other issues—possibly in ways we haven’t seen from the Millennial generation.