Politics and Values: How Gen Z Might Influence Demographic Trends
Increasing political polarization and restrictive abortion access could lead younger generations to cluster into communities that share their beliefs.
Over the past century the U.S. has undergone numerous demographic shifts: From population growth and urbanization to changing birth rates and increased globalization. In 2008, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote about another shift: "The Big Sort." Their central thesis is that since the 1960s Americans have increasingly self-sorted themselves into communities where residents share similar political and cultural beliefs. Skeptics at the time argued the book’s data was unconvincing … but that was before political divisiveness amped-up with the 2016 presidential election.
In the last three years alone the U.S. faced a century defining pandemic, nearly unprecedented social and political unrest, and the Supreme Court reversed decades of legal precedent (some of this is still occurring and the ramifications won’t be known for years). These events have been compounded by, or perhaps a consequence of, ideological clustering resulting in higher levels of political polarization. But apart from individual beliefs, the separate policies of state governments, reinforced by gerrymandering, further drives a wedge.
Considering Millennials and Gen Z are more educated, more likely to lean left politically, and acutely aware of ramifications of the 2022 Dobbs decision overturning of Roe v. Wade, there is potential younger generations may further cluster into the same regions:
Gen Z is more likely than older generations to want an activist government, potentially influencing where they pursue careers, start families, and live their adult lives.
According to one survey, reproductive health laws in the state where colleges are located significantly impact currently enrolled students and unenrolled adults decisions.
A survey of third- and fourth-year medical students found that strict state abortion laws are driving medical students away to states allowing more comprehensive medical care.
With Gen Z showing more anxiety, and active engagement, toward climate change. They may be more inclined to reside in areas that take environmental risks more seriously.
While there has been movement of more people into blue cities in red states, the politics of state legislatures could have a larger role in determining where people settle. Although nothing is certain, developments in the post-Dobbs era could reshape the U.S. population landscape in the decades to come.
Gen Z More Likely to Cluster into Politically Progressive States
Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is often hailed as the most educated generation in history. Growing up in an era of rapid technological advancement, they have demonstrated an enthusiasm for learning and engagement on issues.
While Gen Z is less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to pursue higher education, they also approach institutions with skepticism. Rising costs of college tuition and the burden of student loan debt have prompted Gen Z to consider alternative paths to success. One study found financial concerns have driven 46% of Gen Z to have another job in addition to their main one, compared to 37% for Millennials.
But as Gen Z moves beyond their college years they will need to decide where to pursue careers, start families, and live their adult lives. In the short time post-Dobbs, surveys indicate social and political considerations may factor more heavily into decision making for younger adults.
According to the Pew Research Center Gen Z is more likely than older generations to want an activist government and were more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate in 2020. Data shows voters in the youngest adult generations favored Biden over Trump by a margin of 20 percentage points.
Gen Z’s propensity to be more left-leaning and inclined to turn to the government as a problem-solving entity, rather than relying on businesses and individuals, could also lead them away from states with restrictive social policies.
Politics and Values Likely to Influence Clustering More than Any Time Since the 1960s
Despite a greater propensity to look to government for solutions than older generations, Gen Z is skeptical. While one survey of Millennials and Gen Z found an overwhelming majority of respondents were more likely to trust government leaders from their own communities, they perceived governments as lacking diversity and connections with the communities they represent. Considering younger generations’ greater attention on the effects of climate change, Millennials and Gen Z could further cluster into areas that take environmental risks seriously or work to mitigate their effects.
State Laws Banning Abortion are Influencing Students’ College Selection Decisions
According to a study by Lumina Foundation and Gallup, reproductive health laws in the state where colleges are located significantly impact the enrollment decisions of currently enrolled college students (72%) and unenrolled U.S. adults (60%). The study reveals younger adults aged 18 to 24 and women are more likely to consider these laws important in their college enrollment choices. These findings have implications for higher education institutions in states with restrictive abortion policies as they may face a higher risk of enrollment declines.
States with Abortion Bans May Lose a Generation of Medical Professionals
A survey of third- and fourth-year medical students found that strict state abortion laws are driving medical students away. The reluctance to be a medical resident in areas with abortion bans could exacerbate healthcare shortages in those regions and is another source of a potential “brain drain.” Most respondents indicated they were unlikely to apply to residency programs and start families in states with abortion restrictions.
A potential shift in geographical healthcare makeup may lead to a serious shortage of OB-GYNs in these restrictive states (which already have higher maternal and infant mortality rates). Declines in OB-GYN residency applications is concerning for women’s health and medical schools have said they may need to send students to other states for comprehensive training.
Climate Migration Likely to be a Factor for Younger Generations
Millennials and Gen Z are highly engaged on the issue of climate change according to a Pew Research Center survey. They are more vocal about the need for action, encounter more climate change content on social media, and are more involved in activities like volunteering and attending rallies. When it comes to engaging with climate change content online, Gen Z expresses more anxiety about the future. Among social media users, nearly 7-in-10 Gen Zers felt anxious about the future the last time they saw climate change content, compared to 59% of Millennials, 46% of Gen X, and 41% of Baby Boomers and older adults.
Although it is unclear what “climate refugee” migration may look like in the U.S., Pro Publica reported climate change could create the largest migration in North American history. According to one study (2017), Atlanta, Orlando, Houston, and Austin could each see an influx of over a quarter million new residents due to sea-level displacement alone by 2100. However, there is more recent evidence that most people who move due to climate change in the U.S. now, stay close to their original homes and end up in areas less threatened by the effects of floods and hurricanes.
Demographic Shifts Take Decades … Things Can Change
Since the 1900s the U.S. has experienced periods of significant population growth, urbanization, and immigration. At the same time technological achievements, globalization, and the rise of the middle class has reshaped the country’s economy. But an aging population, declining birth rates, and potentially less immigration are some of the demographic headwinds shaping the future. If the theories outlined in The Big Sort take further root following changes in national and state social policy, there could be further impacts on demographic shifts in the coming decades.
There are several implications to consider if the clustering of younger generations is significantly influenced by state-specific social policies:
Impact on Higher Education: Colleges located in states with restrictive laws may face challenges in attracting and retaining students may result in reduced enrollment and financial implications for these institutions.
Brain Drain from Least Progressive States: Students who strongly value reproductive rights and healthcare access may choose to attend colleges in states with more permissive abortion laws, leading to a talent exodus from states with restrictive policies.
Reduced Diversity and Inclusion: Those who disagree with an education institution’s home state policies may be less likely to enroll, leading to a less diverse student body and potentially limiting the exchange of diverse perspectives and experiences on campus.
Long-term Effects on State Economies: If a significant number of skilled individuals choose to leave states it may lead to a loss of valuable human capital, which could impact innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth.
Demographic shifts are a gradual process that may take decades. The attitudes and changes of the moment may also evolve. As societies progress it is essential to recognize that predicting exact outcomes is challenging. But we should all be aware of what’s at stake and the potential long-term implications of policy decisions.
Any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and the author alone.