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No, TikTok isn’t souring young people on the Biden economy

In some polls, young people are even more optimistic than older Americans.

- November 22, 2023
Images (cc) hands with phone @cottonbro studio. Other images public domain. Combined via Canva.com.

On Friday, the New York Times published a story suggesting that “TikTok economics” may be dragging down Joe Biden’s popularity among young people, a media theme of recent days.

The piece was pegged to two developments. The first involves the much-discussed Times/Siena College polls earlier this month showing Donald Trump leading Biden in five battleground states. Those surveys reported that 59% of respondents under 30 described the economy as “poor,” the worst numbers of any age group.

Second, the Times story noted that videos on TikTok and other platforms about housing costs, student loan debt, and inflation have generated a huge amount of engagement. Putting those two things together, the Times gets this:

Social media reflects – and is potentially fueling – a deep-seated angst about the economy that is showing up in surveys of younger consumers and political polls alike. It suggests that even as the job market booms, people are focusing on long-running issues like housing affordability as they assess the economy.

One problem, however, is that the data on young people’s economic attitudes are inconsistent. Like the Times/Siena surveys, a September 2023 Washington Post-ABC News poll found young people giving Biden dismal economic ratings, some 20 points lower than older Americans. 

At the same time, an August CNN poll showed adults under 35 with pretty much the same views as older Americans when asked whether Biden’s policies had improved or worsened economic conditions. Data from the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment also show young people feeling relatively good about the economy.

And in the most recent George Washington University Politics Poll, which I run with two colleagues, we found likewise that young people are actually the most satisfied with the direction of the economy. Conducted by YouGov and sponsored by GW’s Department of Political Science, School of Media and Public Affairs, and Graduate School of Political Management, the poll interviewed 1,500 U.S. adults from November 7-15 and is weighted to approximate a nationally representative sample.

To be sure, the outlook in our survey was not rosy. When we asked how the economy was doing, 17% of respondents said it was getting better, 55% said it was getting worse, and 24% said it was about the same. A plurality (44%) also said they and their family were worse off than a year ago.

But amid the pessimism, young people expressed the most optimism. Twenty-three percent of respondents between 18 and 29 said the economy was getting better, compared to 16% of those 30 or over. Likewise, young people were less likely to say the economy was getting worse (47%) than were older people (57%).

When asked how their family’s financial situation was compared to a year ago, 27% of people under 30 said it was better. That number was just 11% for older adults. It does not appear that young Americans are “especially glum” about where the economy is going.

So could dire economic memes on social media be a source of young people’s attitudes? It might seem plausible, since 88% of respondents under 30 in our survey said they use social media at least once a day. Meanwhile, the number of people turning to TikTok for news has been climbing.

But among the under-30 crowd, daily social media users were actually more likely to say the economy was getting better (23%) than were people who used social media less often (20%). Of course, those are small differences that are not statistically significant. But they do not suggest that social media is driving economic attitudes.

None of this is to say that other polls showing more economic pessimism among young people are wrong. Different questions appear to show different results. But the idea that TikTok memes are responsible for a significant shift in economic attitudes feels more trendy than true.