A new survey offers a grim picture of America’s youth. Aside from fears of gun violence or homelessness, mental health remains a problem.
America’s young people are afraid. Very afraid.
Gun violence and worries about finding affordable housing have made youth fearful about getting shot or ending up homeless, according to a comprehensive survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which releases its poll of American youth twice yearly on political and social issues.
Forty percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans – a generation that grew up participating in active shooter drills from kindergarten on – are concerned about being a victim of gun violence or a mass shooting, the survey found. Further, about a third are concerned about someone close to them becoming a victim of gun violence or a mass shooting.
Homelessness is also a worry for young Americans, with nearly three-fourths (73%) saying homelessness can happen to anyone, and nearly a third (32%) telling IOP pollsters that they are concerned they personally could become homeless one day.
The survey offers a grim picture for an age cohort just beginning their adult lives. Aside from fears of having their lives cut short by gun violence, or upended by homelessness, mental health remains a problem for youth, the poll found.
Nearly half (47%) of the under-30s reported “feeling down, depressed or hopeless,” and 24% said they had thoughts that they would be “better off dead” or had thought about hurting themselves for at least several days in the previous two weeks.
And a first-ever question about loneliness resulted in similarly dispiriting results: 44% said they had been bothered by loneliness for at least several days in the previous few weeks, 46% reported “little interest or pleasure in doing things,” and 55% reported feeling “nervous, anxious or on edge.”
“What you see here is a sign of 18- to 29-year-olds feeling under attack, besieged in some way,” director of polling John Della Volpe told reporters in a conference call. But at the same time, “at the end of the day, you see a clear sense of values and vision” from a generation that was pivotal to the Democrats’ much better-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterms, said Della Volpe, author of the book “Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”
Despite the discouraging outlook about their own safety and the state of the country, young people are still very interested in engaging with their government and elected officials to bring about change, the poll found. That could be critical to Democrats heading into a volatile 2024 election season.
“In some way, young Americans are voting because they are facing these challenges,” Harvard student Tommy Barone, a research team leader on the poll, said in the press call. “They do feel their lives are under attack.”
Nearly half of those polled – 48% – said they have felt unsafe in the past month because of the threat of gun violence, the study found. Sixteen percent cited shopping malls as a place they feel unsafe, 15% cited public transportation, 13% said they felt unsafe in their neighborhood, and 21% said they were worried about their safety somewhere else in their communities.
More than a fifth – 21% – of college students said they felt unsafe at their school. The poll was taken before the March 28 school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, where three children and three adults were fatally shot, and before the recent cases of young people shot after showing up at the wrong address, mistakenly driving into the wrong driveway or accidentally opening the wrong car door.
Nor do young people feel secure that law enforcement will have their backs, the poll found, with a minority (43%) saying having police officers in their community made them feel “more safe.” Meanwhile, 23% say local police make them feel “less safe,” and 32% are unsure.
Among Black youth, the lack of confidence in law enforcement runs deeper: 35% of Black 18- to 29-year-olds say having the police in their communities makes them feel less safe, while 23% say it makes them feel safer. Four in 10 Black youth say they aren’t sure.
Young people also gave low marks to president Joe Biden, who got a 36% approval rating, down from 41% two years ago.
At the same time, Democrats overall and progressives saw encouraging signs that they are making inroads among youth. The survey found that fewer than half (42%) of young Americans who grew up in conservative households say they are now Republicans (36% say they are independent, 21% call themselves Democrats). But among those who grew up in liberal households, 60% are Democrats (with 31% identifying as independent and 9% as Republican).
On issues, progressive values are increasingly driving young voters, the poll found, with strong majorities favoring guaranteed health care coverage as well as moves to reduce poverty and to ensure all Americans have “basic necessities” such as food and shelter.
The poll did not include head-to-head matchups between Biden and 2024 GOP candidates.