The Risk Generation:

How new forms of risk are shaping the youngest generations


In the transition from the industrial to the knowledge economy, profound changes to the nature of work, the family, and the social safety net have taken root across U.S. society, giving rise to a complex set of risks unevenly experienced by younger generations. For example, in today’s rapidly changing labor market young people are expected to go to college to earn a degree. They do this in order to secure ‘good jobs’ but take on large student debt loads since state governments have largely divested in higher education. Young people today are also expected to move to large, urban areas to find higher paying jobs but face the reality of rising housing costs and the difficult realization that homeownership is out of reach for most. In what Political Scientist Jacob Hacker calls the ‘Great Risk Shift’, younger generations are also taking on new risks related to job loss, healthcare costs, and retirement savings. These risks were once collectively borne by the government and employers but are now shouldered by individuals and families. Rising uncertainties about global warming, the future of democracy, racial injustice, shifting global power structures, growing inequality, and the continued transformation of the labor market with automation and Artificial Intelligence only add to the risk portfolio for today’s youngest generations.

In this mixed methods research project, we aim to understand how the Millennial and Gen Z generations are reacting to new risks that have evolved in American society in recent decades. We research changes in generational values, beliefs, and worldviews that shape risk perceptions, attitudes toward government and the social safety net, and political behavior. Our survey launched in the months leading up to the 2020 election. Qualitative interviews took place during the spring and summer of 2021 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of intense social and economic risk as well as one of the most expansive government interventions into the economy and safety net in U.S history. This project provides a foundation for understanding the unique worldviews and perspectives of younger generations and their desire for a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous future.

Do young people’s values differ from older generations?

In our 2020 survey, we first measured differences in generational values using advances in Cultural Theory. We found that Millennials and Gen Z, on the whole, tend to be more egalitarian than older generations. This value type played out in interviews where young people told us they desired a redistribution of power and wealth in society and wanted to see the equitable treatment of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Unlike older generations that were measurably more ‘individualistic,’ young people showed us that they held a collective outlook that supported their desire for a more expansive role of government to intervene in society, whether that meant reforming the tax system, providing stronger safety net programs, or regulating corporate greed.

Do values change by age?

Do values change by age?

You know me making roughly $50,000 a year, I don’t think that I should be paying more in taxes than anyone making over $1 million and I don’t – I think that that should not even be a debate; like I don’t understand how that is a debate. Tax them! Make them pay their fair share. Income inequality is one of the biggest roots of our problems across the country, and I think if we shored that up I think we’d have a lot more access to money for programs that could solve a lot of the other issues, whether it’s homelessness or you know discrepancies in access to healthcare, access to other things in minority communities, so I think that’s the big one I’d really like to see some work done.

Corporations have too much power. It’s just a truism that, in a liberal democracy, if you have a lot of money, your interests are going to be served either first or better. I don’t know what the right word is. I think that’s a perennial problem no matter what your system of government is, that wealthy people get their interests served first and better.

Despite more young people embodying an egalitarian outlook, we found that young adults also tend to be much more fatalistic than older generations, meaning that many young people felt that they had no agency or control over their lives, and that luck or chance was more determinative of the direction they headed in life. Many ascribed their fatalistic outlook to growing wealth and income inequality, the cost of living crisis, the current state of the political system, or the future of climate change.

I’m kind of neutral about it [feelings about my future]…. Sometimes you just feel like you’re in a rut, and that’s not going to do you any good. But also, I’m not really that hopeful, unless I see changes, I don’t see any changes where I am. Everything is kind of just stagnant. I think that we really need help in a small town like I’m in. And then maybe I could feel hopeful, if there’s more jobs, if there’s somewhere I can live that I actually like, then I would feel hopeful. But right now, I’m not seeing anything that is making me feel like that. And also I feel hopeless because of the debt that I have. Just money issues is always an issue. It’s an issue, it puts a strain on my relationships, puts a strain on everything. So I’m kind of just feeling neutral about it.

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- I feel like I’m never gonna have a house. I rent an apartment right now...

How did young people’s values influence their voting behavior during the 2020 election?

Young people’s desire for redistribution of power and wealth in society came through in conversations about choosing to vote in the 2020 election. Several young people from across the ideological spectrum told us they vote to hold those in power accountable and to express their voice.

What motivated me to vote, I think – you know what they say the cliché and all the stuff like it’s your voice. You’ve got to speak with your voice…And if you feel something’s wrong, you’ve got to address it with a vote. If you don’t like something – the way something’s going with the current political atmosphere or the government administration, you’ve got to vote for or against that to get what you want. And also, I just think it’s important to express your voice.

Notably, many young people expressed fatalistic views about whether their vote mattered or not, even among those who chose to vote. For those who chose not to vote, many expressed strong distrust in leading political actors and also noted that politicians do little to address the ongoing socioeconomic risk faced by younger generations.

…I didn’t really trust Biden either. I didn’t really trust Obama, I guess I just have a hard problem trying to trust any of them. I guess that’s why I used to not vote, because I felt like I was going to get screwed over no matter what, who I picked. You know, to me it was just like, well, I don’t care, I’m going to get screwed over so why give them a vote, you know? … you know, all of them are the same. They’re just going to do the same – say stuff they’re going to fix and end up not fixing it.

Well, they’ll [politicians] have to say a lot of things to get me to vote. They have to help the poor people, help people of color, and help younger people to find jobs and training and make school affordable for young people so they can get a degree in what they want and stuff like that.

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- I mean, we vote, but I just feel like it's really the billionaires and the wealthy corporations that choose the leaders that they want in office.
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- Politicians are all millionaires, and they're supposed to be helping out most Americans...

Did young people’s values influence who they voted for in 2020?

Young people’s values also influenced whether they supported Trump or Biden, with individualists and hierarchists more likely to support Trump, and egalitarians and fatalists more likely to support Biden. Notably, young people across the political spectrum showed that they are more alike than they are different, signaling that today’s divisive political environment may be fostered among older generations.

During the 2020 election and its aftermath, many young Biden supporters told us they wanted to see an end to the political and racial divisiveness brought about by Trump’s presidency, and they feared Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. While they embraced Biden for his calm, trusting demeanor and moderate to progressive policy, in many ways, young voters turned out for Biden as an ‘anti-Trump’ vote.

Like I didn’t trust Trump in the White House. I was scared. I was watching the news all the time, like, what’s gonna happen? Voting for Biden I know would make me feel at ease and just better. Like I’ve been watching the news a little less, because I trust him there. So it wasn’t really like, specifically policy ideas, it was just I trusted him as a person I guess.

I didn’t really like what Trump stood for, especially when it came to everything that happened last year with the Black Lives Matter Movement and everything like that. And that was kind of what turned me more to wanting to vote for Biden. And I just thought maybe that would bring a little bit of a more normal energy, and maybe make us less divided.

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- I think with Biden I think he's looking out for the minority...

The thing that I really liked about Joe Biden – and this seems cheesy – is that he’s like home. I felt like my hair had been on fire for four years. He was just calm and, honestly, a little dopy. I was like, “oh my gosh. I could just listen to this guy and be OK.” I didn’t want a radical. I didn’t want massive change. I just wanted to go back to not cringing when I saw the president on TV and just have it be OK.

Are values associated with 2020 intention to vote for Biden?

Difference in vote share within each value type by generation

Are values associated with 2020 intention to vote for Biden? Difference in vote share within each value type by generation

Young Trump supporters appreciated that he was perceived as a ‘strong’ leader who put America’s priorities first in a globalized world experiencing shifting power relationships. They also appreciated the strong economy during Trump’s presidency and believed in the principles of trickle-down economics. Notably, some young conservatives went as far as to say they supported many traditionally left-leaning issues like Health Care for All, housing assistance, or climate change policies that resonated with their underlying egalitarian or fatalistic values or concerns about current and future risks they would experience in their lives. Others supported Trump because of single-issues like support for the military, gun rights, or legalizing abortion.

I do think he was a strong leader. I think he wanted this country to be the powerhouse it once was, to be recognized as you don’t mess with the United States, be it in economic, any kind of military, anything; you don’t mess with us because you’ll be sorry you did. We don’t put up with that crap.

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- Mostly for me it was his handling of the economy...

I mean we had record number of growth of job creation across all sectors during his administration, whether it was food service, whether it was tech, engineering. I mean so there was job growth amongst all sectors. Did he give tax breaks to ultra rich people? Yes, but when you give ultra rich businesses and business people tax breaks most of them reinvest that money into their company to grow the company, to create more jobs. So that they can get richer, which that’s a good thing because now you have more jobs to give more people.

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- I like Trump's America first type of stance...

So the way I’ve been voting is based on one policy alone and which one [candidate] will have less gun restrictions. So I thought Donald Trump will allow me to have more guns, and so I’ll vote for him. Yeah. So give me a Democrat that will say no gun restrictions, then I’ll vote for him.

Are values associated with 2020 intention to vote for Trump?

Difference in vote share within each value type by generation

Are values associated with 2020 intention to vote for Trump? Difference in vote share within each value type by generation

Are new forms of risk shaping young people’s desire for a more expansive safety net?

Young people today have unique risk profiles that are different from when older generations were going through the same life phase. For example, in today’s rapidly changing labor market young people are expected to go to college to earn a degree in order to secure ‘good jobs’ but take on large student debt loads since state governments have largely divested in higher education. Young people today are also expected to move to large, urban areas to find higher paying jobs but face the reality of rising housing costs and the difficult realization that homeownership is out of reach for most. Our research found that these new risks are pushing more young people to expect more from the government to intervene in the marketplace, strengthen the social safety net, and  address long-term risks like AI, automation, and climate change.

You know my parents at 35 already owned a house and you know, had their life together. And you know I’m doing a similar job to what they would have been doing at their age right now, and like, at a similar level in the structure of the company, and I’m like, I can’t afford a house in Austin and I’m never going to be able to. It’s just not a dream that I can realistically have at this moment, and that’s me being like a white male with a lot of privilege that comes along with that.
I mean I know people that have been paying their student loans since they got out of college and, you know, they still have $90,000 that just continues to accumulate interest. You know, even if they file for bankruptcy you can’t get rid of the student loan debt so what do they do, you know? It’s like having an albatross around your neck for the rest of your life and what does that do to peoples’ mental health?

And environment is the other big issue I’m concerned about because that’s an existential threat. If we don’t get the climate under control…I mean what’s the point of doing anything because we’re going to be dead as a planet in 150 years, you know? It’s just not going to be habitable anymore…

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- I think it's a great way to connect different policies as well...
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- I think most of the people I know that lost their jobs...

Do young people still believe in the American Dream?

With growing wealth and income inequality, the rising cost of higher education, a changing labor market, and the ongoing cost of living crisis, many young people told us they were losing faith in the American Dream. At a minimum, many expressed that the Dream was only available for some, but not for all.

They say come to America you get the American dream, I was, like, what American dream? The house and the white picket fence? Where is it? I don’t know. I’ve worked hard, I’m 37 years old, I’ve worked hard for 20 years. I don’t see me getting a picket fence and white house anytime soon. I mean, you can work your hardest, and sometimes I work like 10 hour days just driving. And I get over tired, I mean, working hard is fine, I mean, good work ethic, but it doesn’t amount to much at the end…

…I would love it if we could expand access to really good public education. It would be expensive, but I think it would be broadly really, really popular; and would go a long way towards correcting a lot of what I think of as the worst aspects of the United States: that not everybody is born with a fair shot. We wax eloquent about equality of opportunity, and yet it doesn’t exist. I really would love to pursue it in a bigger way, and a big portion of that is education and good access to it.

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- There's a ton of risk to everybody in order to get ahead in life...
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- Is the American Dream alive and well? No, it's dead, it's dead...
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- Is the American Dream alive and well? No, I think it ended in like the 60s, 70s..