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What young adults think about the economy — and why it matters for 2020

Who’s being left behind?

It’s the economy, stupid.” Since James Carville first used that phrase to keep Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign focused on economics in 1992, that slogan has been used to insist that elections are made or broken by how voters perceive the economy. As candidates ready for the 2020 presidential election, even President Trump is turning his attention to the economy with boasts of “creating the best economy in our country’s history.” That includes frequently boasting about record-low unemployment numbers, even for people of color.

But unemployment rates tell only a small part of a larger story. While the economy may be improving by many metrics, many young adults — particularly young adults of color — are still suffering economically and want economic policies that offer security. Recent data from the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago suggests that young people’s economic experiences vary by race and ethnicity in important ways.

How we did our research

Our data come from the most recent GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago, a nationally representative, bimonthly survey of young adults that pays special attention to how race and ethnicity influence attitudes and experiences. In our February 2019 survey, we asked 2,134 young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 a variety of questions about their economic lives, including evaluations of their current employment and preferences on economic policies. Our sample includes responses from 763 young people who are white, 547 African American, 515 Latinx, and 251 Asian American, weighted to accurately match population characteristics. That allows us to compare group attitudes with a higher degree of confidence than other surveys.

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A significant proportion of young people are piecing together work just to get by

Despite relatively low unemployment, our data suggests that many of the jobs young adults hold are not giving them a foundation for a strong economic future. For example, roughly 27 percent of Latinx, 19 percent of white, 16 percent of Asian American, and 14 percent of African American young adults report not receiving any benefits at their current job.

This lack of benefits may be related to the high percentages of young adults who say they’re working just to get by. Of the millennials and Generation Zers in our survey who are employed, approximately 42 percent of Latinx, 30 percent of African American, 29 percent of white, and 23 percent of Asian American millennials and Generation Zers say it’s “just a job to get by” and not a part of a career path. Our data suggests that they are not choosing to work in the gig economy or to piece together jobs for flexibility; rather, most millennials and Gen Zers, regardless of race, strongly prefer a traditional career.

Data: GenForward Survey, February 2019, n = 2,134.
Data: GenForward Survey, February 2019, n = 2,134.

At the same time, young adults report having to work several jobs. African Americans in particular are working and spending significant time on secondary jobs or on temporary or contract work in addition to their primary jobs. Roughly 31 percent of African American young adults who are currently employed report having a second job; that’s true of 20 percent of Latinxs, 18 percent of whites, and 11 percent of Asian Americans. Moreover, 38 percent of African Americans who report having several jobs say they spend at least 16 hours per week working outside of their primary employment, the most of any racial or ethnic group in our sample.

What’s more, our data suggests that young adults, especially African American and Latinx young adults, don’t believe they have access to good jobs. Fully 44 percent of Latinx and 39 percent of African American respondents report that good jobs either don’t exist in their area or they can’t access them through driving or public transportation; only 29 percent of whites and 31 percent of Asian Americans say the same.

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Data: GenForward Survey, February 2019, n = 2,134.
Data: GenForward Survey, February 2019, n = 2,134.

Unsurprisingly, majorities support wealth redistribution and government involvement in the economy

Given this level of economic insecurity, it may be no surprise that young adults across race and ethnicity express strong support for more government action aimed at reducing economic inequality.

Data: GenForward Survey, February 2019, n = 2,134.
Data: GenForward Survey, February 2019, n = 2,134.

For instance, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” which would include a two percent tax on the assets of people with a net worth over $50 million and 3 percent tax on the assets of those with a net worth over $1 billion. That’s supported by large majorities of our respondents, including approximately 71 percent of African Americans, 75 percent of Latinxs, 87 percent of Asian Americans, and 71 percent of whites. Smaller majorities supported a proposal that the government should guarantee a job to every American adult who wants to work; that included 70 percent of African Americans, 70 percent of Latinxs, 60 percent of Asian Americans, and 52 percent of whites.


Our data suggest that the U.S. economy’s gains haven’t fully filtered across equally for everyone. While the Trump administration and other GOP leaders often paint young adults as idealistic socialists, the economic policy preferences of millennials are focused on protecting their jobs, securing benefits, reducing income inequality and ensuring that everyone has a decent shot at a productive economic future.

Millennials and now Generation Zers continue to face, or at least believe they face, a precarious economic future, and want the government to have their backs. Candidates for president in 2020 vying for the youth vote may wish to continue to recognize and speak to their economic insecurities.

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Vladimir Medenica and Matthew Fowler are postdoctoral scholars for the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago. Cathy J. Cohen is founder and director of the GenForward Survey and David and Mary Winton Green professor of political science at the University of Chicago.